What gives an artist their style? Or whatever it is we call ‘style’ – those distinguishing characteristics which we may or may not be able to put into coherent words. That distinguishing mark that sets one artist apart from others is what every artist searches for in their work. The perfect blend of skill, personality and imagination to make one special set of tendencies forever more to be recognised as uniquely theirs.
Indeed if you have seen enough works by a particular artist, you will begin to recognise their pieces. After spending last year working on Edgar Degas, I was recognising his works. Given that he produced literally thousands of works, this turned into a fun game of ‘pick a Degas’. I even began to recognise staged photographs modelled on his works, and as well as copies of his works by other artists.
In 1968, a group of Rembrandt scholars started a project to organise and categorise the work of the Dutch master. This project (named Rembrandt Research Project) quickly gained authority on Rembrandt, with the scholars having the final work on whether a painting was genuine or a copy by a talented student. The result was an upheaval in the world of Rembrandt’s art. As researchers discovered more about the way Rembrandt worked, they also attributed more paintings to the students of the artist’s workshop. We know that Rembrandt had a multitude of students, and his art was his business. If he were happy with the work, his signature bore the mark of his approval in the art market.
Personally, I feel that if an artist is happy to sign a painting with his name (especially in a highly competitive and buzzing market of the Dutch Golden Age!) then perhaps we should consider that piece worthy of his name. After all, if in Rembrandt’s eyes, the piece represented his art – with all its stylistic characteristics, why should anyone else question it? But in reality it is not so black and white: the difference between a Rembrandt and workshop copy stands at hundreds of millions of euros!
But money aside, Rembrandt makes a great example when discussing an artist’s style. Last year, a team of technologists from Microsoft produced their own ‘next Rembrandt’! The group worked in collaboration with ING, Delft University of Technology, Mauritshuis Museum and Rembrandthuis Museum. Having performed 3D analyses of Rembrandt’s portraits, they created algorithms that allowed a computer to come up with the final image of a portrait of a man done in the style of Rembrandt.
What “The Next Rembrandt” demonstrates is that an artist’s stylistic identity is a kind of fingerprint: unique and identifiable. It is the artists that are able to find that fingerprint that make their mark in history and stand apart from the crowds. They are the ones we remember – whether they come from 17C golden age, or Brisbane’s modest sculpting workshop, or a painting studio in contemporary Paris. Commercial galleries sometimes encourage artists to produce work in series. The reason is that series guarantees that the work will have consistency in style and presentation – thus making it recognizable and easily packaged for the gallery. In terms of artists creating their brand, the style is not only something that helps people to recognise your work. It is a marketing opportunity to definite their brand and image, so that they can find their place in the vast, complicated and sometimes unfathomable art world
If we study the work of established artists (regardless of period), we’ll find that each takes years to develop his/her style. On top of that, the longer at artist works, the more likely they are to change their direction/feel/tendencies. I love using Picasso as a reference when talking about consistent stylistic characteristics. He was by no means consistent throughout his career, but the works he produced were consistent within their respective periods. The blue period – oppressing coldness, crossed and folded arms, with figures piercing through the canvas. The rose period, with its acrobats, circus performers and beautiful pink hues. The African-influenced period: the allure of African art, and the insistent appearance of the mask in the art of Parisian artists. Cubism – everybody knows this one! And the surrealist period – more roundness, bizarre combinations of colours and shapes, where reality twists as much as the pencil line. It’s hard to think of another artist who has explored this many different styles! Yet Picasso maintained a consistency when working in each of these periods. It is as if he knew his brushes, and they knew him.
Maybe that’s it – knowing your brush is the key. The first instinct is usually the correct one – after all we often come back to the object we picked first in an art show, after giving into our sensible self and going through the rest of the exhibit. Same goes for the artists when working on their art. Perhaps that’s the key to that allusive stylistic fingerprint.