This pressure to stick to one avenue of expression, and the exclusion of stylistic innovation, serves to choke artists’ creativity, and contextualizes them as craftspersons making pretty baubles for the marketplace.

The imagination is a sea of the unknown, unconscious, and semi-conscious, that we fish in for novelty, solutions, and surprises. If we try to harness it too much, it can buckle down, become stubborn, and refuse to cooperate. It wants to be free. In which case the demands of the marketplace that artists create within the scope of one set of parameters is a prescription for dwindling creativity, where artistic exploration is switched out for making consumer products.

This trend has been going on for a long time, and you can clearly see its effect on the art of the American Abstract Expressionists of mid last century. Each prominent artist monopolized one approach for physically applying paint to canvas. Jackson Pollock flung stringy lines of paint on the floor. Marc Rothko made soft rectangles of color. Helen Frankenthaller stained canvases. Clyfford Still painted with patches of paint. Paul Jenkins did spills. Robert Motherwell did shapes in black and white. Willem de Kooning did vigorous brushwork.

Artists who were already limiting themselves stylistically to non-representational painting further found themselves working with just one narrow set of techniques for applying paint to canvas. They could conceivably have combined multiple approaches, or moved from one to another. Are we really to believe that one person is inherently a spiller, one a stainer, one a flinger, and so on?

If you are not familiar with Hans Hoffman, it may be because he didn’t harness his non-representational painting to one set of tools and applications. He had his own art school in New York, and is an acknowledged heavy influence on a range of the more popular Ab-Ex artists who laid claim to just one avenue of abstract art making. This is not commonly known or celebrated among those who are familiar, but Hoffman innovated styles before other artists isolated them as their own, and became known as the purveyors or even owners of those same styles.

Jackson Pollock, for example, is credited with inventing “action painting”, and it is this innovation itself, more than the paintings using this technique, that he is often most admired for.

According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History:

“Pollock had created his first ‘drip’ painting in 1947, the product of a radical new approach to paint handling.”

Lucifer, 1947 by Jackson Pollock

How radical of a departure is Pollock’s signature technique from Hoffman’s painting, “The Wind” of 1942, completed roughly 5 years before Pollock’s unprecedented artistic breakthrough?

The Wind, 1942, by Hans Hoffman.

Pollock is credited with being the first significant artist to drip, spill, and fling paint. Clearly he wasn’t the first person to do those things. We can go further back in time and Hoffman made another painting with flung and spilled paint in 1940. Behold “Spring”:

Spring, 1940, by Hans Hofmann.

Hoffman employed a full range of techniques, and had an eye for color, composition, texture, gesture and movement to rival any of the stupendously more acknowledged artists of his period.

Oceanic, 1956, Hans Hofmann.

I would probably prefer to go to a retrospective of Hofmann’s work over that of any of the other Ab-Ex painters, because he is the most consistently innovative, interesting, and aesthetically satisfying.

Memoria in Aeternum, 1962, Hans Hofmann.

When I see Hofmann using flung squiggles in one painting, and hard-edged impasto rectangles of primary color in another, I see a restless mind innovating without cessation. But what the market sees is a body of work difficult to brand, and an approach to art that can’t be conveniently pigeonholed.

The failure of imagination that places Hofmann rungs lower in significance to his own students, and the likes of Pollock, Rothko, or Frankenthaller, does not belong to Hofmann, but the art establishment/market.

If you do an internet search for the best Ab-Ex painters, Hofmann doesn’t make the top 10 in frequency of inclusions. The table below shows which artists were mentioned the most in the first 9 decent lists I uncovered of prominent Ab-Ex painters.

1Jackson Pollock1111111119
2Mark Rothko1111111119
3Willem de Kooning1111111119
4Helen Frankenthaler 1111011017
5Franz Kline1110101106
6Clyfford Still 1101110005
7Barnett Newman1101000104
8Joan Mitchel0010111004
9Lee Krasner1001101004
10Arshile Gorky0100100013
11Robert Motherwell110001003
12Hans Hofmann0011000002
Hans Hofmann comes in at #12. I’d definitely have him in the top 5.

Why does art history, which places so much value on stylistic innovation, limit artists to a narrow range, or even just one specific innovation with which to explore? The answer may be that the market doesn’t value the innovation, but rather a distinctive gimmick which a single artist can be singularly branded with.

This inclination to the gimmick reaches the point of parody in whole careers, such as Robert Ryman’s fame for all-white paintings.

Robert Ryman, “No Title Required.”

Admittedly, eliminating color and composition along with imagery from painting forced a focus on brush strokes, texture in general, and the size and physical nature of the painting as an object in space (as opposed to a window into an imaginary world]. But how many of these paintings needed to be made before redundancy took hold?

The subordination of stylistic innovation to marketplace demands for an easily identifiable commodity persists today.

More than a dozen of my own styles

A few weeks ago an artist on Twitter offered that I have not yet matured into a signature style. If I were to have responded in kind, I would have told the artist they hadn’t matured yet beyond discovering a single approach that they could pull off convincingly. Many of my favorite artists worked primarily in one style, from Van Gogh, to Francis Bacon, to Caravaggio, to El Greco. Others, including Picasso, David Hockney, Hans Hofmann, Max Ernst, and Gerhard Ricther did not.

Picasso, for example, had his early Blue & Rose period. Then there was analytical cubism, his surrealist phase, neoclassical works, and variations on his mature style epitomized by his crying women paintings.

Getting a little more personal, and moving on to my own stylistic explorations.

1] Here’s a drawing I did from the imagination when I was 17-18 years old, using only a mechanical pencil:

2] This is a more loose and painterly acrylic painting from my mid-20s:

3] This is a style where I use one brush in Photoshop and work completely from my imagination:

4] This is a collage style I do from my own travel photos using Photoshop:

5] This is a realist style I’ve done based on photos I take:

6] This is a style somewhere on the razor’s edge between figuration and abstraction:

7] This is a very illustrational style emphasizing realistic lighting, texture, and modeling:

8] This is 100% 3D modeling using Blender:

9] This is a digital impasto Expressionist painting:

10] This combines 3D modeling, digital impasto painting, collage, and movie reference images:

11] This combines AI, digital impasto, and a few other custom techniques:

12] This combines collage and digital painting to create a tableaux:

13] This is pure Photoshopping, here for purposes of parody:

I can keep going, because I frequently experiment with new techniques. My versatility allows me to sometimes “crack” other people’s styles, whether they are digital or not.

14] Here is my attempt to recreate Basquiat’s style, digitally.

15] Here’s is Koons’s painting style, which was digital collages he had his assistants painstakingly reproduce large-scale, and using oils and tiny brushes.

16] If you know who Jonathan Meese is, this is a fake in his style:

17] This was my attempt to make a Van Gogh style painting of a non-existant self-portrait with a cut and bleeding ear. You can’t really do his paint strokes digitally, but here was an approximation.

18] In the contemporary NFT space, I managed to crack XCOPY’s style in under 3 hours, as it happens wile people were bidding millions of dollars on the original.

19] Doing that one gave me the idea to do this one:

20] How about a digital watercolor and ink painting?:

I think 18 styles is probably enough. Obviously, a handful of these are not my own, but I could go on to include 24 or 30 styles and hybrids.

21] Here’s an abstract style using only vector text:

22] Here’s an unusual mix of 3D sculpting and thick digital impasto painting:

23] How about a more moody, B&W collage with political overtones?:

24] I made these realistic vintage school desks from scratch in Blender:

I’ve done cartoons, political cartoons, and in college sculpture, performance art, photography, and installation art.

What motivates me to make art is often curiosity/exploration/discovery. What will happen if I try this, or that, or combining these two things? I can work on 2 or more styles simultaneously. This just seems natural, that if you are an artist interested in exploring what can be imaged, you would want to test out different recipes.

I’ve maintained for a long time that an artist only really needs to make one great work. Edvard Munch’s “Scream”, John Everett Millais “Ophilia”, Ford Madox Brown’s “Last of England”, Dali’s “Persistence of Memory”, Georges Seurat’s “Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte”, and Piet Mondrian’s “Composition No. II” come immediately to mind.

Of course these artists have made hundreds of works, and that was necessary to hit it out of the park with one, and usually more. My point is that it only really takes one piece in a lifetime for an artist to make an impression in the history of art. That is just a possible antidote to the ethos in which artists must find a gimmick and churn out endless variations on it for marketing purposes. And I wouldn’t say that’s what someone like Monet was doing. He’s another of my favorites who is identified with one core style. But nobody is forbidding artists from being endlessly consistent in the style of output. Rather, it is the perverse prohibition against exploring with approaches, tools, and techniques that needs an overhaul.

Many artists, and perhaps most, would prefer to explore just one style. I am no more against that than pursuing one subject matter in a variety of styles, which is not at all. I’m grateful for the range of styles and approaches people practice, however varied or singular. But the demand that artists all restrict themselves to one dominant style subordinates artists to the marketplace, and reduces them functionally in some strong respects to artisans fashioning baubles for the aristocracy.

However I slice it, I’ve tried multiple times to stick to one method, and I haven’t been able to do so. I lose interest and can’t motivate myself to keep going. But if there’s something different I can try out, curiosity and wanting to see the unseen takes over. I’m sure there are a lot of other artists similar to me, who find stylistic restriction stifling, and would be doing far more rich experimentation if we could only get past believing artists only have one style in them, are defined by it, or must stick to an easily identifiable gimmick.

~ Ends

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17 replies on “Insisting Artists Work In One Style Limits Their Creativity

  1. Imagination is the greatest gift we have. Creating is what keeps me sane. It doesn’t need to be painting, it can be anything I do during the day. I make up new games for the kids to play or find cool rocks, make jewelry, whatever. I don’t have a style of painting either. Mine has been more of a slow evolution than jumping around. But it stems from the same place of getting tired of doing the same thing over and over. It’s the creative part of you that makes you an artist and not a craft maker. I love Hoffman too. He was also a great art teacher and I think it probably helped him get new ideas from his students doing so much different stuff for him to see daily. Have you ever see DaVinci’s – Deluge drawings? They were some of his last drawings. I think you might like them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Matt: Glad to hear you’ve remained sane in the clown world due to your various means of having a creative outlet. 😉 I didn’t even know about Leonardo’s “Deluge Drawings”. Thanks so much for that hot tip. They are spectacular. Probably also the first instance of biomorphic abstraction, though not exactly. Hofmann might have gotten ideas from students. I know a teacher who got an idea from me. But I think Hofmann was a great innovator, and that’s primarily why he had more stylistic versatility than any of the other Ab-Ex artists I’m aware of.

      This is the kind of mind Hofmann had: ” He increased his knowledge of mathematics there, eventually developing and patenting devices including an electromagnetic comptometer, a radar device for ships at sea, a sensitized light bulb, and a portable freezer unit for military use.” In his younger days he innovated in applied math and science. Dude was off the charts. He might have been over people’s heads. I first discovered him when I was 18, but I’m an artist and tend to get visual material. Most people in academia, and influenced by academia, tend to see art through the lens of ideas about art, in which case they are often not up to the task of accessing or assessing art in purely visual terms. As I say when I’m in a more incendiary and critical mood, shockingly a lot of the art theorists/critics with the most influence are borderline visually illiterate. This is because they traffic in ideas in linguistics, rather than learning as I did, by LOOKING: pouring through books and magazines, studying and absorbing visual images. It’s like music. You don’t learn about it by reading dense and ultimately bogus articles deconstructing it, or politicizing it. You learn by listening to it.

      I’m a big fan of your art. Your use of color and texture can be outrageous, and gorgeous. I know you experiment with form, the human figure, and experimental methods of applying paint!

      Great to hear from you.


  2. Didn’t have time, earlier, to say more.
    I’m so happy you posted this! I saw it not long after I posted my “niche” one – thank you for the “Like,” btw – and this piece of yours made me feel more confident in what I posted. Freedom to grow, explore, enjoy, speak out, etc. matters! I’m sick of these pronouncements that those who create art (etc.) have to have a single style or a subject or whatever in order to succeed. Yes, from a marketing standpoint, clear messages can be easier to promote than murky or varied ones. And yes, “knowing” prospective clients can tell us where and how to find them so we can sell our little hearts out. But not everyone can create within restrictions, and not everyone can flourish when they create only to feed an audience. I’ve finally decided not to try anymore (not that I was trying hard before). Maybe I’ll accidentally produce something worthy of notice (and $$$) but it’s doubtful. I can live with that bec I can’t live without freedom.

    Your work is pure creativity, done masterfully. It’s that thing we rarely see: visual delight in infinite possibilities.

    Didn’t know about Hoffmann. WOW.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Robin. Right, you are someone who likes to explore stylistically, including in both digital and physical mediums. I discovered Hofmann when I was 18. I saw one of his paintings in an art magazine in the community college library, and it knocked my socks off. Never forgot him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the idea is not that you don’t transform and evolve, but build a significant body of work in a certain style then move on if desired. I see artists creating random work then compiling a portfolio that does not have a signature. It’s difficult to build an audience this way. I’m not saying right or wrong, but not conducive to sales.


      2. I look for quality and originality. Rank amateurs may not have yet found what they are interested in, but more advanced artists may have evolved what they are interested in. Early Beatles’ albums, for example, have a lot more sameness than the later ones, and are also much more derivative, and of a lower quality.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Yes, I am reassured by your article, Eric. Although I suppose many artists have a unifying character to their work, Hopper, Seurat, Estes etc, it is always compelling to follow an artist through different moods and scenarios. Certainly, as artists we shouldn’t feel guilty for doing different things. Different strokes … and all that.

    Liked by 3 people

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