Finding Your Signature Style As An Artist

Discovering your signature style as an artist can be tricky.

Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones who has found a particular style you admire, emulate, and have mastered. If not, don’t worry you aren’t alone.

Six different artist styles
Artist (Top to Bottom, Left to Right): Victor Bykov, Norman Fraser, Frederick Robinson, Eyvind Earle, Joseph Leyendecker, Bill Cramer.


More often an artist goes through a period of experimentation, and even those who have found their signature painting style must make an effort to step outside of their comfort zone and grow their skills as an artist.

For those of us that struggle to find their signature style, there is hope…

Today I’m sharing the struggles you encounter along the way, and the journey to finding yourself as an artist.

Do I Really Need a Signature Style?

Moving from the animation industry into fine arts has had its challenges. In animation you are commissioned to execute a specific style, a scene, and a mood. You don’t get to choose what that is, your job is to be so fluid you could execute any style your client/company requires.

The Little Mermaid and The Waterhole Paintings
Left: Paintings I did for Disney Picture’s “The Little Mermaid”. Right: My personal painting “The Waterhole”

In the world of fine arts it is opposite.  Even if it is a commissioned piece you are required to have one signature style that brands you in the eye of the public. When a client buys one of your pieces, they are a fan because they love your style and execution in the piece. They commission you because they see a consistent style they gravitate toward, so they want a unique original piece that follows your signature style.

Observe some of the most successful artists…those who no longer struggle for every sale. They typically have something, or a set of somethings that are similar throughout their entire collection. Whether that is a subject matter, a color palette, or a style of painting.

This is called branding. You don’t find successful artists painting abstract art one day and renaissance another. Instead of broadening your audience by carrying a variety of styles, you make it harder to market yourself to the right niche of people. Even galleries know to niche their market.

Would you follow someone on social media who only produced things in the style or philosophy you enjoy once in a blue moon? Or do you follow people who more consistently speak to your taste?

As frustrating as it might be for some of us to limit ourselves to a particular style. Finding your look as an artist will help your client niche find you. It is pivotal to the success of your business.

The Effects of Marketing & Trends On Your Style

In my attempts to discover myself as an artist, I realize I naturally fall into a certain look. My painting style tends to lean tighter, more representational and less impressionistic.

Five donaldtownsart paintings with rope around them.

But what happens when the market is trending opposite of where you lean as an artist? Do we need to adjust to meet the current trend in the market? And where does your signature style fall into this?

Whether you have already discovered your signature style, or you are in the process of discovering it, this can be a frustrating paradox for the artist. While there are trends that will be here today and gone tomorrow, there are also overarching trends that can last for decades. Most of us would rather not be successful after our deaths in the future but be able to keep a roof over our heads today.

The question of will our artwork sell if our signature style isn’t trending, can motivate us to pivot into whatever IS trending. The real question is whether we are being true to who we are as an artist while pivoting. This is a question we can only answer individually…

So my question to you as you consider your signature style is this:

  1. Is there room for small changes you can embrace as an artist, and a certain amount of wiggle room to incorporate more popular elements out there without sacrificing your signature style?
  2. Is the current overarching market trend affecting your taste and things you gravitate towards when seeking your signature style?
  3. Can you leverage your own uniqueness to become a trend within a smaller niche?

Learning What You Like Vs. Who You Are

I have met artists who have a strong sense of what they like and who they desire to emulate. One talented artist I met at Masters of American West art exhibition was thrilled when I said his artwork reminded me of the work of Dean Cornwell.

Dean Cornwell Painting
Artist Dean Cornwell

It turns out this was his favorite artist, one he desired to emulate…and yet while accomplishing that goal he managed to maintain his own distinct look. He had a strong sense of the style he wanted to capture in all of his artwork.

I’m not one of those people. I can look at one artist within a niche and love it, then another in an opposite niche and love their work too. Sometimes the biggest battle in finding your signature style as an artist is having broad and inclusive taste. Other times, it is the struggle not to be swayed by another artists work at the abandonment of our own distinct look. We want to emulate, not be an exact replica.

Designers have a fantastic little trick to help clients hone in on what their style should be. They create a set of boards on Pinterest and ask clients to pin several images they love. Then they have to choose only the top 10 pins they love most from among all of their pins. They have to select the images they want to describe who they are as a person. That becomes the board they are to reference for inspiration when they feel distracted by other styles.

In the journey to discover what we like versus who we are as artists we can carefully consider the artwork of those we admire, but ask ourselves these questions along the way as we hone in on what we love , why we love it, and whether it can be part of what makes our own signature style:

  1. What draws you about this artist or particular piece of artwork? Is it the style, the mood, the color palette? Is it possible to include some of those elements into your own signature look or does it define your signature look?
  2. Is it their style you love, or their craftsmanship in a particular technique you admire? Perhaps you can incorporate that technique and skill set but within your own style of choice. Or is this someone whose overall look you can actually emulate?
  3. Do you love this artists entire collection, and would you want it in your home on all your walls long term? Sometimes we like a piece in the gallery, but realize it’s not for us when it doesn’t fit into the style of our home. The same principles apply when considering an artist to emulate.
  4. Does this person have similar painting style/traits to your own? If someone is dramatically different from the way or what you already paint, they may not be someone to emulate. Perhaps borrow the subject matter or painting techniques you admire.

Is Your Signature Style Already There, In Plain Sight?

Sometimes others around us already have a sense of our signature style while we think we are floundering to find it. Consider leveraging your audience, friends and family. Ask them what they think your signature style is, and how they would describe you as an artist. If you start to see a trend, they might be on to something.

Painting of eyes close-up

Sometimes we have a sense of our own signature style without even realizing it. Is there a look you naturally gravitate toward in your painting?

I have experimented with a wide variety of painting styles. I like to challenge myself as an artist and push the limits of what I can do. However, every time I try to step out of my box, I feel like I find myself right back within that very box. No matter how hard I try to accomplish a particular look or feel in a painting, my best work always seems to gravitate back to a particular look. At the end of the day, each painting is just what it becomes.

Here the question is; is this a lack of skill, or is this my unique area of strength? This might be my signature style. Obviously skill must be honed over time, but there is a difference between skill in technique and painting style.

You Won’t Always Get It Just Right, And That’s Okay

Don’t mistake the difference between execution of technique and style of painting.

My good friend Thomas is an incredibly talented and skillful artist. He has found wonderful success as a fine artist. Even he has struggled with the execution of a painting from time-to-time. He once told me about a painting he struggled to get right. He put it aside, and didn’t pull it out for 30 years. Looking at it, most of us wouldn’t see a single flaw in that painting…we would have thought it was great. However there was something about it that bothered him personally.

Thomas Blackshear painting. "A Common Thread"

This is what becomes the distinction of what makes you who you are as an artist. That inner struggle, that particular thing you were going for in that painting that causes you to put it aside for a few years.

Whether you get it 100% right or not, just by seeking to execute that particular ‘thing’ is you infusing your painting with that signature style.

Embracing The Battle, It’s A Process…

It’s okay, struggling is not a negative, it’s just a process. Everybody is trying to find where they belong. To discover how to express yourself in a world with so many people doing the same thing you are doing.

The battle to discover yourself and what makes you special as an individual, as an artist. No one has my exact story, my exact strengths and weaknesses, and all of it contributes to what makes us unique.

Animation may have given me my greatest strengths, but learning how to pivot and grow my business has given me a whole new set of challenges. Ultimately it will become a whole new set of strengths.


What about you? Have you begun to discover what distinguishes you as an artist? What are some of your struggles?