Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Developing Your Artistic Style

Woman with a Fan, Pablo Picasso
(Hermitage Museum) 
In my early days of fiction writing, the notion of “style” eluded me. 
“What exactly is style?” I repeatedly asked myself.  “Where does style come from?  Is it something that you purposefully develop, or does it somehow manifest by itself?” 
I researched this question in books and asked my various writing teachers about it, but never got a satisfactory answer.
The reason I became so obsessed with style is that I knew that the successful artists of all types—painters, musicians, writers, etc.—have a unique, instantly recognizable style.  (See blog post about this)
If I have no style, I thought, how can I possibly become a successful writer?
When I developed my fiction writing skills to the point where agents and editors started taking me seriously, I still saw no style in my work.  I had learned to tell a tight, engaging story, but stylistically, was it very different from anyone else’s? 
If so, I could not see it.
What compounded this problem was the voluminous amount of criticism I received from these publishing industry professionals when I sent out books.  There were no patterns to the feedback.  Much of it was contradictory.  “Very well-developed characters.” “Unbelievable characters.”  “Crisp, catchy dialogue.” “False dialogue, not like real speech.”  “Too much description.”  “Not enough description.”
I pulled out my writing books and tried to make sense of it all.  I couldn’t. 
It seemed to me that the answer had something to do with style, but this was little more than a vague feeling.
I didn’t know what to do.  I finally became so fed up with all the rejection that I decided to take a long break from my writing.  To clear my head, I decided I needed a dramatic change of surroundings.
I ended up moving Russia for a year, taking a part-time teaching job to pay the bills. I moved to St. Petersburg, an amazing city, Russia’s artistic center.  I rented a modest apartment just a block from the spectacular Hermitage Museum, which boasts one of the most impressive art collections in the world.  The first few weeks I spent many hours strolling through it, and became fascinated with the Impressionist collection—they have hundreds of paintings by Picasso, Monet, Gauguin, etc.   I was particularly impressed by Picasso’s work.  Talk about a unique, instantly-recognizable style!  After spending a just little time looking his paintings, I could recognize a Picasso at one hundred yards.
Outside the museum, on the magnificent Palace Square, street artists would set up to draw portraits of tourists for money.   I often stopped and watched the artists at work. Observing this activity stirred something deep inside me.  When I was 6 or 7 years old, I went through a rather intense period where I wanted to be an artist.  My grandmother, who was Hungarian, was a talented oil painter and watching her work inspired me.  This dream didn’t last, but it persisted long enough for me to take drawing lessons every Saturday at the art museum in Cleveland, Ohio, where we lived at the time.
There was one portrait artist on the Palace Square in St. Petersburg who stuck out above all the others—his portraits were awe-inspiring and looked exactly like the subject being painted. 
His name was Andrey.  I paid him to do my portrait, and as he worked, I made some small talk.  It turned out he was a graduate student at the prestigious St. Petersburg Art Academy and drew portraits some afternoons for pocket money.  He spoke English, but just barely. When he finished my portrait, I mustered up the courage to ask him if he would teach me how to draw portraits like he did.
He eyed me skeptically—a middle-aged American tourist asking him to do something like this?
“I took drawing lessons as a kid,” I said.
He shrugged.  “Why not?  We may try.”
I’ll never forget my first lesson.  I wanted Andrey to come to my apartment, where we would have privacy, but he insisted that we meet at the Art Academy campus on Vasilievsky Island, in one of the formal studios.  “We need many material and good light,” he explained.  “Better I learning you in studio.”
To say that I was nervous is an understatement.  I was 38 years old and hadn’t picked up a drawing pencil since I was seven. My apprehension quadrupled when I arrived at the spacious studio and found out that some of Russia’s most famous artists had used it, including Ilya Repin, the man after which the academy was originally named.  On top of that, Andrey had arranged a live model—an undergraduate art student—to pose for me.  There were several other artists milling around the studio, too, which only added to my anxiety.
Andrey stood next to me as we gazed over the top of the blank paper at the model, a beautiful 20 year old girl with a classic Russian features.  She sat on a stool, perfectly still, her head turned, peering back at me.
Andrey put a charcoal pencil in my sweaty hand.  “First step—draw outline of face.”
I swallowed, and barely able to keep the pencil from shaking, slowly started sketching the oval.  Yet, oddly—within 30 seconds—I began to relax, the soft scratching of the charcoal against paper calming me.  The sounds took me back to my childhood, and I actually remembered the sounds and smells from the Cleveland art museum.
“You draw not badly,” Andrey said, looking relieved.  “I think I learn you ok.”  He began coaching me through the drawing.  When it was done, it was pretty bad, but wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared.  At least, nobody in the room was laughing.
I was soon taking lessons from Andrey three times a week, at first at the studio, and later, at my apartment, after I’d bought the requisite easel and materials. 
I threw myself into this work, experiencing one of the most powerful bursts of creative energy I’ve ever had.  I drew portrait after portrait after portrait, very detailed works, sometimes completing two or three a day.  Andrey spent many hours explaining in painstaking detail all the techniques used to draw eyes, noses, lips, ears, cheeks, necks, hair, sideburns, mustaches, wrinkles, birthmarks and so on.  He also arranged for me to buy an actual human skull and taught me all about the anatomy of the head, the bone and facial muscles beneath the skin, the cartridge of the nose and ears, and how all this effected facial structure, shadows, and so on. 
Andrey and I got along marvelously and became close friends.  But by August, I sensed something was wrong.  I was beginning to feel comfortable enough to deviate slightly from all the rules and techniques he had taught me.
“There is only one correct approach to drawing,” he stiffly told me one afternoon.
In late August, just as the weather started to cool, our relationship underwent a dramatic, unexpected rupture.
I was in the middle of drawing a portrait of one of my friends, John, an American about my age, with Andrey looking on.  Andrey was supposedly there to give me pointers, but he was strangely silent.  He hadn’t said one word the whole time.
Suddenly, he pointed at the paper.  “Nose is wrong!”
I studied the nose I’d just sketched, glancing back and forth between it and John’s nose.  I didn’t see anything wrong with it.  “How so?”
“It is simply wrong!”  Andrey shouted.
I glanced at John, then back at Andrey.  “I really don’t what’s wrong with it.  It looks just like John’s nose to me.”
Andrey stomped his foot on the floor it so hard that it sounded like an explosion.
“You no listen me!  I your teacher!”  He pounded his fist into his chest.
“Calm down,” I said. 
 “I need some water,” John said, scurrying into the kitchen to get the hell out of there.
Andrey was staring at me, breathing hard.  He pointed angrily at the drawing.  “You must change nose!”
Now I was beginning to feel stubborn.  I didn’t see anything wrong with my rendering of John’s nose.  “I’m not changing it.  I like it the way it is.”
“Then you find new teacher!”  Andrey bellowed.  He stormed out of my apartment, slamming the door behind him.
I felt terrible the next few days.  I really liked Andrey—I called him a couple of times but as soon as he heard my voice, he hung up.  I wandered back out onto the Palace Square and tried to find another teacher, but no other artist seemed even remotely as good as Andrey. 
Meanwhile, my friend John had hung the portrait I’d made in his living room—he really liked it. “Are you sure you need a teacher?” he said.  “It seems to me you’ve had enough instruction—can’t you just develop your skill on your own?”
I mulled this over and decided maybe he was right.  I continued to make more portraits,  hiking over to the art academy campus every morning and hiring new students to pose for me.  I cranked out drawing after drawing and kept steadily improving.  At least, I thought so. 
One day I decided to put all my latest portraits on display in my studio.  I had signed and dated each one, so I started with the most recent and worked my way back, until I had covered all four walls with them, and even part of the ceiling.
A short time later one of my student models showed up and asked to buy the portrait I’d done of her.  This was an awesome moment for me—it was the first time anyone had actually offered me money for any of my portraits.  I decided to give it to her as a present. 
She was delighted.  “My mother is a curator at the Hermitage Museum,” she said proudly.  “I will show it to her.”
Uh-oh, I thought.
The next day she called, wanting to know if it was okay if she brought her mother over to my apartment to see all my portraits. 
A curator at the Hermitage Museum?  A professional art expert?  No way!
I made excuses, but she kept pressuring me, so I finally gave in.
We met out on the sidewalk, and as the three of us walked up the stairs to my apartment, my knees felt weak.  “Look,” I said, turning to the curator, “I’m just an amateur.  My stuff really isn’t worth seeing.”
“Nonsense.  You must learn to be more confident.”
Bracing myself, I led them into the studio.
The curator stood there in the middle of the room, slowly turning around, taking in one amateurish portrait after another.  I wanted to crawl under the easel.
“These are wonderful!” she finally said, looking back at me, smiling.  She passed her gaze over the portraits again.  “You have already developed your own style!”
“Style?” I muttered.  I was stunned.  It was the last thing I had expected her to say.

I looked around from one charcoal portrait to another, confused.  I really had no idea what she was talking about.   All the portraits looked exactly the same to me.  I saw no more style in those drawings than I did in my novels.
 “There’s no style,” I said, motioning to them, although now I realized I could see that there was a certain sameness about all my portraits, a sameness in the sense that I could tell I had drawn them.  “That's just the way I dra—”
I never finished the sentence.  It was one of those rare epiphanies that hit me with such force I was nearly knocked off my feet.
That's just the way I draw.
As soon as the two ladies left my apartment, I pulled out my oldest portraits, the ones that I had made under Andrey’s strict instruction, and compared them to the ones I was doing now.  They looked completely different.  I found the portrait that Andrey had made of me, the day I met him, and compared it to the others.  What had happened, so gradually that I hadn’t even noticed, was that I had veered from drawing the way he taught me to drawing in my own way...the way that I thought was best.  And in so doing I had developed my own unique style.  Interestingly, this style was not obvious to me then and is still not obvious to me now, but others readily see it.
I also want to point out that I don't believe I could have found my own drawing style without Andrey's instruction.  He was (and perhaps still is) an incredible teacher, and I’m certain that without his expert guidance and training, I would have never been able to draw a charcoal portrait that was worth looking at.  Mastering the fundamental skills and techniques of any art form is crucial—as the old saying goes, “An artist must learn the rules in order to break them.”  But at some point, you have to set yourself apart from the teachers and follow your inner voice.
I had no intention of becoming a professional artist.  But as soon I arrived back in the States, I felt renewed energy and confidence about my writing.  I dove head-first into my next novel.  This time, I told myself to forget about all I had learned in my writing classes, and all the well-meaning criticism and advice from the from agents and editors. 
I just wrote the story the way I thought it should be written.
The book was called Wild Child.
The rest is history.


  1. Yes.
    And yes again.
    This is why I have an issue with both creative writing classes and books. They teach you to write like the teacher or like particular authors they approve of. Not to how write YOUR way, to find your unique voice. They often claim to. I'm not so sure.

  2. Wonderful post. Interesting the way it takes some of so long to realize that everything we've been taught has, over time, somehow miraculously congealed into something else--something that is uniquely our own.

  3. Mike,

    You took my breath away with this post. What a wonderful journey and epiphany you experienced.

    Funny, I never think of having a "style", although I do notice that I've developed a narrative "voice" that threads (hopefully subtly) beneath the voices of my characters.

    I've also created a mythical "world"--Brands Crossing, Texas, which is the setting for a series of novels (not necessarily sequels) that tell the stories of contemporary members of families who date back to the 1800s.

    Always a Faulkner fan, I never sought to attempt his level of artistry. However, I can see his influence. He had Yoknapatawpha County. I have Brands Crossing.

  4. Brilliant. Brilliant. I will use this -with your permission -for my students ---and use as I struggle with new work and voice -- yes: know the rules before you break the rules. Yet we can never know them all so we need to break them as we go ,too. So much is that inner confidence that frees us to believe " it's only me" is maybe all there is. Thanks for this.

  5. What about Andrey? Did you two ever patch things up?

  6. No, Kahlan, unfortunately I left St. Petersburg shortly after that. He took my "rebellion" against the rules very badly--I have tried to find him a few times but don't know where he is now.

  7. Oh man, Mike. I've got tears in my eyes. What a moving, inspiring story.

    One thing that stuck out was the "portrait after portrait" part. You can't develop your style with one or two stories. You have to keep writing and writing and writing, even when you think it's no good at all. I'm glad you did that. Do you have some scans online of your artwork?

  8. Thanks for your comments, Linsey. I agree, you have to write and write and write to find your style, or perhaps rediscover it after you take writing classes and/or absorb a lot of rules from "experts."

    About my artwork, I was going to include a scan in this post but I couldn't find any--the originals are in Latvia right now. I'll have to do it later.

  9. I just found you blog this past week and was catching up on some of your back posts when I stopped to read this entry. Excellent post...speaks to many of us who always worry that we're just faking it. If our readers keep coming back then we are truly using our own style. Thank you!

  10. Mike, that was an awesome post. Just mind-blowing. I just...I want to say something really profound but I think you took everything out of the profound hemisphere :).

    I'm just starting out myself and I worry about whether my way of writing is the "way" - the set way that critics could ever find note-worthy. Reading your blog just reinforces the idea that I have to write the story the way the story should be written. That I can look at as a writer and say this is me and I am proud of it. No one can be you but you!

    Thanks, Mike. Really enjoyed it!

  11. Very interesting post. I believe that to be atrue artist, you have to do it your way. I believe your books definitely have astyle unique to you.

  12. I love this post, Mike! As both a writer and a painter, I totally understand where you're coming from. Your style (or, what we might also refer to as "voice") is not something that can be forced on you. It develops gradually, and comes from the heart, not from the head.

  13. Thanks for this story and the advice. I decided several months ago to try my hand at writing a novel, though I'd never before done anything of the sort. Of late, I have felt like it's all a sham. Who am I to be writing fiction? Who would want to read this, and will it ever be publishable? Your story has helped me put it all in perspective. Even if it's not perfect, not "great American novel" material, my ideas are worth being written, and written the way I feel they must be.
    I'm glad to have followed your blog. Without it, I would still feel as though I were fumbling in the dark, an unworthy amateur amongst the great authors of our time and times past. Now I feel I can achieve my goal of creating a readable story, as long as I stick to my instincts and allow my voice to shine through.
    Sorry for the lengthy comment, and again, thank you. -E

  14. I just finished your article and found it very interesting. I am glad to see that I really have to stand up for my style. The Editor can suggest changes, but if they don't feel right you can object. I don't write to be famous. I write hoping people will enjoy my stories, that's all you can hope for. By the way how old were you when you lived in Cleveland? I have been in the area now for some time. thanks

  15. Thanks for your comment, CeeCee. I lived in Cleveland from age 5 to 10 in South Euclid, on Green Road. Very good memories from there.

  16. Lovely story. I think reading/classes are good for teaching character, structure, dialogue, especially if you don't have an academic background, but at the end of the day it's your writing. Part of it is having the confidence to divert from the standard way of doing things, without the arrogance of I'm doing it my way no matter what anyone thinks.

  17. Excellent story that really speaks to me--and others writers too, it seems. I always wanted to write but never had the chance until now. Though I prefer reading thrillers, mysteries, and the like, I was never able to develop a story in the genre and believed that I'd never be able to write a book. However, a few months ago while out on a long run, this story came to me. I cut the run short and started my story. My voice, my style, turns out is Women's Literature (I hate the phrase ChickLit). That is what came naturally, so I go with it. Who knew that what you enjoy reading and what your own artistic style is could be so wildly divergent?
    I've also just read the first, of what I hope to be many, of your books, LM&M--you have a fantastic style. You're right, too, your writing is tight and concise.

  18. Mike, as I read the story above and think of your journey in which lead to your epiphany then read some of the comments from it I have figured out what I've been trying to for sometime...it wasn't that I didn't know what my style meant but rather how to manifest in my head whether it was something I was taught or born with etc. I have figured out that it is something we decide and teach to our selves. There is no instructor or critique that can teach you how to come to your own style....now to figure out what my style may be, is a whole other subject and it was a great story of your journey!!

  19. This is so fascinating Mike! And timely. Thank you for sharing. I had a splatter of revelation similar to your epiphany - although somewhat in reverse. My current art teacher Abe, was discussing a topic in his usual cerebral tone. I miss half of what he says at times, but paint along noddingly. I chimed in at some point and shared a quote I found relevant to his point. "Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks." ~ Simonides.
    I found my self expanding on this with him, all-the-while struggling with a too loaded paintbrush. After nearly two years under "Abe's" tutelage, I'd become all too self aware and felt stuck. I was not where I wanted to be in my art and was struggling to 'see.' (To his credit, my teacher leaves ample margin for error, so that I'll take more risks).

    My “Aha,” moment came when I explained to him how for me, writing and in particular poetry, seems to pour out easily. “It’s my canvas,” I told him. “When I write, I’m just putting down my thoughts. My poems, they are like that and sometimes cathartic in a way.”
    Abe: “Why can’t you do that here?”
    Me: “What?”
    Abe: “When you paint. That’s all you’re doing here...putting down your thoughts.”

    ...It hasn’t left me. And, now I know it is my style because it’s my story to tell. Rough drafts are like the glaze I first lay down in a painting. And vice versa.

    I’m glad you found your way in the ease of your own style, even without the final art approval of your former teacher. Funny, how life can be better understood looking back! Your writing style is so clearly identifiable. And good for us the reader! Lust, Money & Murder book #1 was thoroughly enjoyable. I was actually irritated when it ended late one night while I was reading! Going to get book #2! Thank you, and uhm your art teacher too!

  20. Hello. I enjoyed your story. I have always wondered why people criticize other people's work. Now I know. I have been looking around for answers all over the place. Today I came across your article and it has open the doors to a new way of thinking. It has also reassure me that I'm on the right path. I have my own style and I'm glad to have found your article.

  21. Glad to hear that. It is an eye opener when one becomes aware of this, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  22. excellent point! As I develop my blog, I have been reading up on grammer, etc. So when I break a rule, I know I am doing it on purpose. It is very hard for a teacher to see the student make that break, however. Its too bad Audrey couldn't handle it.