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Style

January 25, 2015 , In: Culture, General, Inspiration
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We all have opinions about the many styles of art out there, and what we like or don’t like in the work of other artists. That doesn’t mean we think the work we don’t like is necessarily bad, just not to our personal tastes. But what is it about a particular style that we find interesting or appealing, or off-putting? How do we talk about stylistic differences?

What is Style?

According to a quick Wikipedia search, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Style_(visual_arts)):

“In the visual arts, style is a ‘…distinctive manner which permits the grouping of works into related categories.’ or ‘…any distinctive, and therefore recognizable, way in which an act is performed or an artifact made or ought to be performed and made.’ It refers to the visual appearance of a work of art that relates it to other works by the same artist or one from the same period, training, location, ‘school’, art movement or archaeological culture: ‘The notion of style has long been the art historian’s principal mode of classifying works of art. By style he selects and shapes the history of art’.

Style is often divided into the general style of a period, country or cultural group, group of artists or art movement, and the individual style of the artist within that group style. Divisions within both types of styles are often made, such as between ‘early’, ‘middle’ or ‘late’. In some artists, such as Picasso for example, these divisions may be marked and easy to see, in others they are more subtle. Style is seen as usually dynamic, in most periods always changing by a gradual process, though the speed of this varies greatly, between the very slow development in style typical of Prehistoric art or Ancient Egyptian art to the rapid changes in Modern art styles. Style often develops in a series of jumps, with relatively sudden changes followed by periods of slower development.”

Without going into the many permutations within each, here are some broad definitions of basic styles…

1. Realism / Naturalism

(Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Realism_(arts)):
“Realism (or naturalism) in the arts is the attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, implausible, exotic and supernatural elements.”

2. Abstract / Stylized / Primitive

“Abstract Art uses a visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.


Abstraction in early art and many cultures: Much of the art of earlier cultures – signs and marks on pottery, textiles, and inscriptions and paintings on rock – were simple, geometric and linear forms which might have had a symbolic or decorative purpose. It is at this level of visual meaning that abstract art communicates.”

Author’s Note: I am lumping “stylized” and “primitive” in this category, as forms of abstraction…

Stylized (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abstract_art):
“Stylization and stylized (or ‘stylisation’ and ‘stylised’ in British English, respectively) have a more specific meaning, referring to visual depictions that use simplified ways of representing objects or scenes that do not attempt a full, precise and accurate representation of their visual appearance (mimesis or ‘realistic’), preferring an attractive or expressive overall depiction. More technically, it has been defined as ‘the decorative generalization of figures and objects by means of various conventional techniques, including the simplification of line, form, and relationships of space and color”, and observed that ‘Stylized art reduces visual perception to constructs of pattern in line, surface elaboration and flattened space’.”

Primitive (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primitivism):
“Primitivism is a Western art movement that borrows visual forms from non-Western or prehistoric peoples, such as Paul Gauguin’s inclusion of Tahitian motifs in paintings and ceramics. Borrowings from primitive art has been important to the development of modern art.”

3. Whimsical / Humorous

I could not find a good definition for this style, so I went for the dictionary… though we all know “whimsical” when we see it.

“whimsical |ˈ(h)wimzikəl| 
adjective1 playfully quaint or fanciful, especially in an appealing and amusing way: a whimsical sense of humor.2 acting or behaving in a capricious manner: the whimsical arbitrariness of autocracy.”
I like to think of “whimsical” as something that makes me smile, laugh, swoon from cuteness, or some other similar reaction. There is an emotive quality to work in this category.

There are other style definitions that one can use, or even, style expressions within the above definitions, such as “Organic”, “Curvilinear”, and “Rectilinear / Geometric”. And quite often, more than one definition may apply to a given work of art, or architecture. For example, an art nouveau building might be described as “abstract / organic, with curvilinear detailing” and it might even have naturalistic characteristics. The range of potential style definitions and areas of potential overlap can go on and on, and can get rather complicated. But let’s stick to the above basic categories and do a little old fashioned style analysis.

But first, why bother? Why do we care about style and where a particular work of art fits within our universe of styles? For one, it helps us as artists to understand our own style in the work we create. By seeing our work in the context of other styles, we come to see what is unique (or not) in our own efforts. It helps us to grow and define our own voice. And secondly, it gives us a “handle” to communicate with our fellow artists and the public in general, about our work, the work of others, and cultural / historical contexts. And on a personal level, when we like or don’t like something, understanding the language of style provides a means of identifying more specifically, characteristics that cause us to react the way we do.

By way of a brief survey, I’m going to share some examples of bead and component designs. To get our feet wet, let’s start with the Feather concept.

Shades of Realism

Laura Mears renders her feathers in a hyper realistic style,
with both elaborate carving and glaze detailing. 
Caroline Dewison’s feather is very realistic with delicate carving to bring out the details.
She chose, however, a simple glaze treatment for a slightly more abstract, interpretative style. 
Terri Del Signore, also renders a fairly realistic feather, but with
a primitive stylization that keeps the realism in check.

A More Stylized Take

Rebekah Payne’s feathers are both whimsical and stylized.
They also have a distinct primitive quality to them.
Lesley Watt’s highly stylized bronze feather, has a strong abstract feel to it, as seen in
how she integrated the heavy textural pattern into a simple, almost geometric shape.
Kylie Parry’s feather is a simple primitive design. 

In my own work, I have been playing with stylized primitive treatments of woodland objects and critters. I deliberately strive for a look that hints at – but does not imitate – american indian and other historic primitive styles. Lately, I especially love WOOD. I form and carve clay in a stylized homage to all things tree-born. Wood in jewelry components is a popular trend right now, with many designers using actual  branch and twig elements in their work. While I like this look, as a designer, it is overly realistic for my tastes. My opinion is not surprising, given my penchant for primitive stylization.

The Ultimate Realism, REAL Wood Beads

Wood Twig beads by Rich Kibbons
My ceramic leaves overlaid onto a real birch branch slice. As you can see here, I was intrigued by the idea of using actual wood elements in some of my work. But I eventually abandoned
the idea as it seemed a bit too realistic for my tastes.

My Fanciful Take

Assorted “log slices”, leaf, tree bark, and other nature elements,
all in a simple primitive style. (Starry Road Studio)
Ceramic twig beads, again, largely a primitive style, though I do verge
on a naturalistic rendering of the bark. (Starry Road Studio)
Ceramic branch with leaf charms; while the branch – like my twigs –
are primitive with shades of realism, the leaves are very abstracted,
with simple broad “strokes” indicating leaf veins. (Starry Road Studio)
On a more whimsical note, a little bird on a log. (Starry Road Studio)
Arrow and wood beads. (Starry Road Studio)

Our Feathered Friends

Another popular subject for expression in beads, are birds and owls. Here are a few examples in a broad range of styles.

Rebekah Payne’s Sleepy Owl has both naturalistic and whimsical qualities.
In the latter case, in the playful treatment of the eyelashes.
Laura Mears‘ treatment of her barn owls, is highly realistic, with a touch of stylization
in the simplified dark line work around the eyes, beak and heart-shaped face.
Linda Landig’s little clay bird is adorably primitive and whimsical.
This little owl by Caroline Dewison screams primitive in it’s highly
abstracted form, complimented by the rustic glaze.
Jenny Davies-Razor’s fierce looking owls are naturalistic
with an expressive, almost whimsical feel. 
These little guys actually made me chuckle. They are Lesley Watt’s
Owls with Sweater Vests. Talk about whimsy! And very stylized. 
A bird by Gaea, with strong abstract qualities in the use of
a simple overall shape and a bold painted pattern.

My own owls and birds tend to be abstract and stylized. And, again, I go for a primitive look, with simple shapes and details. In some cases, the shaping is highly stylized, inspired by american indian art of the Pacific North West.

Owls in their tree homes. The owls are simple little shapes (stylized),
while the trees are rendered with a bit more detail, making them more
realistic but still relatively simple and primitive. (Starry Road Studio)
A little woodland bird, primitively rendered in both carving
and glaze treatment, on a tree stump. (Starry Road Studio)
Owls, rendered in a rigorously primitive style, inspired by Pacific
North West american indian art. (Starry Road Studio

Design Dilemma

More recently, I’ve been playing with barn owl ideas. Two takes: one more stylized and simple, the other with a touch of realism in the face details. I’m still not sure where I want to go with this. I’m balking at the latter because it seems antithetical to the style I prefer. But we’ll see…

My simple version of a barn owl. I feel more comfortable with the overall style of this, vs….
…this take, with it’s very detailed face carving. 
(side view)
 (Starry Road Studio)

So why the dilemma? Well,  though I prefer a simpler treatment, I felt that it does not fully express the amazing pattern of feathers in a barn owl face…. as seen in this photo by Mark Whittaker. This pattern is a key element of what makes the barn owl so spectacular.

“Melanistic” European Dark Breasted Barn Owl – by Mark Whittaker (Twit Twoo)

And yet, in my second take, I feel that the detailing is overdone and inconsistent with the style I tend to prefer working in. I will eventually resolve the issue (probably after glaze testing and seeing how the final result looks), but I share this as an example of how we might step back to examine our own work for style characteristics, to better understand what works or doesn’t work. However, to be clear, this is a fluid process. Developing a style is not a matter of artificially shoe-horning one’s work into a style not discovered by the creative process itself. Doing that only results in imitation or derivative work that in the end, would probably not be very satisfying.

Next time you look at your own work, think about the style you are working in. Is there a consistent style across your body of work? Is it eclectic, with a variety a styles? Is it evolving? How do you feel about the style(s) you are working in? Have you ever stepped back and said “I don’t like this or that”, or “wow that really works for me!”

Finally, a point I want to clarify is that style is never static. It is natural and necessary for us as artists to explore new ideas, forms and media, that challenge us to evolve. Even when a signature style emerges out of our work, we still need to experiment and make course adjustments for what feels right. It is always a journey of discovery.

Web: Starry Road Studio
Facebook: Facebook.com/StarryRoadStudio

Karen Totten

Karen has worked professionally as an artist and designer for over 30 years in a variety of creative disciplines: architectural design, illustration, art direction, mixed media art, interaction design. She currently works full time as a User Experience (UX) Design Principal for an international consultancy. When not flying to work every week, her other passions are ceramic art, sketching, and occasionally, jewelry design. “For me, the creative life, from UX to fine art, has always been one of exploration and adventure. As the daughter of an air force navigator, I grew up a traveler. To this day I am intrigued by stories and motifs that transcend time, culture, and geography.“
  1. Reply

    Great post Karen – my style is constantly evolving and in many directions it seems. I love to try new techniques and materials and each time I learn something it crosses over into mediums and creates a change. At times I have worried about the lack of continuity but I think I've come to accept that that's just the way I am…I have a low boredom threshold for one thing and I'm very driven by the 'what if' principle. Maybe one day it will all coalesce into a recognisable style but until then i'll just have fun with it.

    • Reply

      I think that is the best way to go – keep throwing darts and eventually you'll find that "sweet spot" that becomes your signature style. Even after many years of working as an artist, we go through phases where we pick up a new medium or a new idea that challenges us to evolve and change. This is normal and in my opinion, necessary!

  2. Reply

    Yes – great post Karen – well said. a good working conversation on styles. My work tends to be naturalistic, if a bit stylized due to constraints of scale and material. I choose motifs for their symbolic meaning and want them to be clearly read, recognizable. I keep my forms simpler, and hand paint details in underglaze. As to you owl – I think the answer will lie in the glazing. Will the glazes break on those tiny details around the eyes? Will they be lost in thickness of glaze? Or will the glaze and carving details be too much – and not suit your style?

    • Reply

      The face will be glazed in either stain or wiped-back glaze. I may end up liking the little bugger, but for now I'm on the fence. 🙂

  3. Reply

    Really fab post! I think personal – and artistic – style evolves only through trial and error; through working and experimenting and following one's gut. I think as soon as I start thinking 'oh, I couldn't use that, it's not my style' or even worse, picking things deliberately because they are 'my style' – as opposed to whether they speak to me or not – then it starts to feel forced and slightly artificial. You almost have to work in the dark, then take a step back and look at what you've created to see what your own 'style' is, I think.

    • Reply

      Yes I agree! Great point that I should have clarified… style cannot be FORCED. It has to be developed over time. As one starts to get a sense of what works or doesn't, your own style emerges.

  4. Reply

    Hi Karen, This is a great post. I have not defined my style yet, but I found your post thought provoking.

    • Reply

      Thank you – so glad it gave you food for thought. 🙂

  5. Reply

    A thoughtful post…helpful to those of us who are still struggling to define our style.

    • Reply

      Aw thanks! The "struggle" (creative process) can be a huge part of the fun. Enjoy!

  6. Reply

    Really enjoyed your post Karen. I've been thinking about my own style a lot this last couple of weeks as I've been working on some new ideas, and I've decided I don't really have a fixed style. I put it down to having a very short attention span, so I struggle to develop ideas. I am working on having more patience, it's one of my goals for the year… (as Lesley said) hopefully at some point things will fall in to place, but for now, I'm just going with what I like!

    • Reply

      Going with what you like is exactly how you develop your own style – over time, the stuff you like the most, the core elements of your artistic senses will percolate to the top. You will look back one day and fine that there is a strong trending style in your work. When this happens to me, it is always a pleasant surprise.

    • Reply

      find* not fine

  7. Reply

    Such a fascinating and thought provoking post. Thank you. People tell me that they can recognize my jewelry designs as being mine. I think that is interesting as I just make stuff the way I like it, without much thought about what style it may be. On the other hand, since I am a ceramic newbie, I'm not always sure what like or don't like – or even what might be possible. Its a little disconcerting to start over in a new (though related) field. But I think it is a good move, It kicks you out of the comfortable groove and makes you see thing fresh again.

    • Reply

      I think that you will find that your new work in clay will inform your jewelry style, and that in turn will inform your clay work. This kind of feedback loop is part of what fuels the creative process. And as I mentioned in reply to Caroline's comment, you start to see a style trend in your work that will continue to evolve and strengthen. It should be a lot of fun to see that happening in your jewelry design too as you use more of your own clay beads in it – all your work evolving together.

  8. Reply

    This was a huge enlightenment! As I read I kept in mind what I am drawn to and realized it is more about the individual artists rendering and how it speaks to me personally. I can however better define a piece with all this information.

    • Reply

      So glad it helped! I love this topic. People usually have to tell me to shut up. lol.

  9. Reply

    Karen, as the author of two books I would have to say, with a high level of confidence, that this wonderful article is the basis for a book you are going to be writing.

    Bring it on!

    As a person who had the incredible privilege of growing up as a fourth generation native of Washington, DC, I grew up in a family who had LIVED in DC's museums for four generations.

    Even as I child I knew that the museums were a chance to identify "me" and "not me" in the objects I viewed. I found my calling to be a scientist in the museums of the Smithsonian. I also found my calling to be an artist there. All by looking at objects, exhibits, and the "words" on the walls beside the exhibits. All by saying "that's me" or "that's not me".

    Interestingly the Blogosphere, Facebook and Pinterest have become "the new museums" for me. Every day when I surf, I get new chances to say, "that is the evolving me!" or "that is not the evolving me". The internet has brought me another set of "museums" to visit.

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post. Time to begin the outline for your book!

  10. Reply

    p.s., The absolute happiest year of my life was the year I wrote my first book, a comprehensive health care guide for women who do crafts.

    In that year I got to bring together my passion for medicine, my passion for crafting and my passion for writing.

    You are going to have that year very soon!

    • Reply

      I appreciate your thoughts and encouragement Susan! 🙂

  11. Reply

    Fascinating post Karen! I love to "dissect" artistic styles. There are many that I admire for one reason or another and discovering just what it is that appeals to me about that particular style is always fun and really helps me further develop my own work while maintaining my voice.

    A big part of what defines my own style is also the limitations of the materials that I work with. When I first discovered polymer clay, I envisioned achieving extremely fine detail, but quickly found that my ideas were too fragile and time consuming for beadmaking and my perfectionistic side screamed with frustration when things didn't come out just so.

    I consider my current style to be somewhat stylized and whimsical. I like to go for an organic or rustic/primitive feel with some fine detail and texture, but nothing too precise so any "crooked line" won't look out of place… instead I allow for and even plan for those crooked lines! But at the same time I like to create a very finished look and never consider a piece finished until all elements flow together perfectly… in my mind anyways. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and this peek into your artistic journey!

    • Reply

      I'm glad you enjoyed it Rebekah. I completely agree about materials having a great deal to do with the style of the work we create. Ceramic clay, for instance, typically does not allow the same degree of detail as metal clay or polymer, and my style reflects that. I think if I were to work more in polymer, my style would change quite a bit. My metal clay work is like that – it tends to be more detailed.

  12. Reply

    I really enjoyed this post Karen!
    Two reasons – 1- it is very intriguing and something I have reflected on a lot recently.
    2 – I can't even tell you how excited I was to have my work shown in a post from you! I admire your work so much! When I saw my feather in your post my gasp woke my husband (who was sleeping next to me)!
    I have recently had a conversation with my son about this because when I draw or paint I lean toward realism. His style is more stylized.
    My son gets graded on his sketchbook and I have noticed that his teacher favors realism when it comes to marking. I love my son's art work because it really is a style all of his own! I have been showing him some techniques that will help him bring depth and realism to his sketches but in doing so I can't help but feel that it squashes his confidence in his own artistic style. So this has really been on my mind and I enjoyed your post and the timing of it! It is not helpful to force what should be natural! I want to encourage my son's style regardless of how one teacher grades!
    Thanks Karen!
    On another note

    • Reply

      Thank you for your nice comments – I love your feather – it really caught my eye and I just had to include it as a great example in my style discussion. I'm go glad this article has helped you in your mentoring of your son. He is very lucky to have a thoughtful talented mom to help guide him. 🙂

  13. Reply

    Thanks Karen, for such a great post.

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