Originality is a word that’s heard in all areas of art: creative writing, dance, music, drawing, painting, and any other art form you can think of. During the reception at the recent HFAA Art Show, judge Phil Schmidt listed originality — or the lack thereof — as the first criterion by which he scores each work he views.
I know my art lacks originality and there are a lot of reasons for this. In the future, though, I want to be more original in my drawings and paintings, so first and foremost I want to understand what originality truly means.
A standard definition tells us that originality means having the ability to think independently and creatively. We’re told, too, that originality means coming up with something new, different, or unusual.
An original work of art should be fresh, imaginative, unique, distinctive, inventive, innovative, perhaps even unconventional.
It’s easy enough to recite all those words, but how can we apply them to our art?
For me, being original hasn’t been an area I’ve focused on in the past. I’m still at a place in art where I’m learning by doing — repeating instructions from art tutorials, following along with how-to lessons, imitating what I see other artists doing. There’s nothing original in that.
As a landscape artist, I find the concept of originality especially challenging. I paint trees, hills, mountains, rivers, and lakes. I paint rocks. I paint grassy fields. How do I take these elements and make them different in some way?
This was a question posed by Phil Schmidt during his talk. He held up a watercolor he’d done of an old barn. While I was gasping at the beauty I saw in the painting, he was quickly dismissing it as all but worthless. It wasn’t original, he pointed out.
“How many paintings of old red barns have you seen?” he asked. Good point, I suppose, but for me it’s enough to worry about painting an old red barn without also worrying about making it fresh, imaginative, or any of those other words describing originality.
After showing us the barn painting, Schmidt challenged us to think of ways it could be made more original. One woman suggested adding a rainbow to the sky. Another suggestion was to add farm machinery. Maybe those ideas would work. I’m not sure.
Another reason why my work isn’t original at this point is because many of my paintings are practice pieces. They’re part of my learning process, paintings meant to help me improve in specific areas rather than ones intended to be viewed as fine art.
This simple mountain scene is one such practice piece:
Yep, those black lines are from the Sharpie I was using to sketch in the basic shape of the mountain. My objective in this painting was to paint a mountain that didn’t look a lot like a triangle or pyramid. In that regard, I think I succeeded. I also practiced on creating a few nooks and crannies in the mountain. I consider this a success as a practice piece. An original work of art, it’s not, but it was never intended to be.
Still, paintings like this turn my thoughts to the question of originality — or the lack thereof. How do I find it? How do I develop it? How do I take the common elements of landscape painting and make them fresh and imaginative?
I hope developing a style of my own will lead to more originality in my paintings. As I move now more toward impressionism in my painting, maybe my own vision will prove to be unique. Certainly we each do see the world from an individual perspective and maybe some of my individual outlook will show through in my painting.
I know, too, it’s necessary to look closely at the natural world, to recognize the differences from one tree to the next, to see that not every river looks the same, to acknowledge that not all rocks are created equal. Nature is magnificent in her diversity, and as an artist I need to be more cognizant of her variety.
One additional thought about originality — and in my case, the lack of it — involves focal points or centers of interest within a painting. I suppose starting with a focal point and building a painting around it might be a good approach, but I tend to do things differently. I focus first on what I feel when I look at a scene. I want to capture the mood and the emotion. I really don’t think about having a focal point until after I’ve finished a painting and realize, once again, I have no true center of interest. One artist — like me — might paint a simple mountain scene. Another — more original — artist might view the same scene and choose to paint only a specific piece of that mountain, making one of those crevices a focal point to catch the viewer’s eye.
Earlier I did a bit of research on the topic, looking for specific ideas on how we can make our art more original. Here are a few suggestions:
- Plan a painting with an original concept in mind. Before starting, brainstorm a bit. Consider ways you can bring two or more ideas together. Make thumbnail sketches of possibilities.
- Experiment. Good things happen in art when we’re playing around and trying new things. Spend time practicing different methods and learn from the results you achieve.
- Draw inspiration from many sources. Be willing to step away from the familiar. Explore artwork that’s different from your own. Open your mind to new influences. Allow yourself to occasionally be a little uncomfortable by what you read and see.
- Find your passion in art. Get excited. Find those things that make your heart beat a little faster and make them part of your art.
- Work to develop your process and your skills. All fine art requires some degree of technical skill as well as an understanding of the process involved in creating art. Different artists have different methods — essential steps to follow as they move from concept to finished work. Find the process that works for you, and practice, practice, practice in order to improve your abilities.
- Set attainable goals. Good art is built on confidence and success, and a sure way to achieve both is to set reasonable, attainable goals. Developing confidence as artists allows us to more forward, to grow, and to be willing to try new things.
- Give yourself occasional challenges. While achieving goals builds confidence, we can’t always stay in our comfort zones. Now and then, it’s good for us to push ourselves a little, to try something different, something that’s a bit more advanced. We might fail, but we will still learn from the process. Many times, we’ll also surprise ourselves with what we’re able to accomplish.
- Be an artist. This might sound like meaningless advice, but I think it’s a key step toward developing originality in our work. It means making our own choices in art, not relying on advice or instruction from others. As artists, we can choose our own palette, we can take elements of a scene and re-arrange them, we can decide what brushstrokes to use, we can do whatever we please so long as it expresses our intention.
For the foreseeable future, I will continue painting boring mountain scenes, simple landscapes that lack focal points, and generic-looking trees. That’s where I am right now. But I’ll also be challenging myself, thinking about different ideas I can incorporate in my paintings, and I’ll be discovering my passions in art.
So, what does originality in art mean to you? What suggestions do you have for finding it?