How Irreplaceable Are You? (Great Art-Part 3)

It’s really not important if you want to create great art, good art, or just-for-the-heck-of-it art. The last thing I want to imply in my “Great Art” blog series is that great art is automatically the goal.

Maybe yes, maybe, no—either way it’s not a judgment, it’s a description of one possibility.

However, if great art is a deep yearning inside you, I want to make sure you don’t think of it as a futile exercise in subjective reality or the opinion of others.

There are steps you can take (See Great Art Part 1 and Part 2). And while the markers of complexity, mystery, and mastery won’t assure you of greatness, at the very least they will give you…

a place to lean into.

If having your work make an impact is important to you, there is one other, inescapable requirement you can’t ignore: your artistic fingerprint.

The irreplaceable you

All of us carry a deep-seated awareness that we are unique. As Mr. Rodgers slid in or out of his sweater, he liked to remind us “you’re special just the way you are.”

And yet, for a whole host of artists, aligning that awareness with their artwork seems to be out of the question.

How many still-lifes have you seen that could have been painted by any of a hundred different artists?

How many have you seen that could have only been painted by one?

And which do you remember?

What does it take to bring the irreplaceable you into your art?

The battle for creative license

For some artists, their fingerprint has always been with them, from the beginning. They know it and others see it.

For others an artistic fingerprint is not so obvious. I remember one woman coming up to Jason Horejs in a workshop to ask him if she had one. I was peeking over her shoulder, looking at her portfolio where image after image was indelibly hers, and I was amazed that she couldn’t see this.

For others, one look at the dozens of pieces of artwork on their website and you’ll see an artist all over the place, with one style per piece.

These artists, I’ve discovered, are fairly prickly when you talk about an artistic fingerprint. Immediately, they start defending their right to creative freedom, as if you’ve just told them they have to draw the same 3 pears, arranged in the same way in a chipped blue bowl, for the rest of their lives.

For other artists, their creativity is on an indulgent roll with sculpture vying for space with the oil paintings vying for space with the prints vying for space with the jewelry… you get the idea.

And in the majority of these cases, it’s not that there’s a problem with what is, only with what the artist assumes can happen with what is: sustainable, long-term, commercial success.

Not going to happen.

What might happen is sporadic sales and lots of ohhs and ahhs from friends and family, which only strengthen the artist’s resolve to keep what they see as a right to unshackled creative freedom.

And then there are artists who do want that signature style, do want their work to have an impact and their vision to have a following, only they aren’t sure how to go about it.

What if you don’t know, or have, a fingerprint and want one?

This is exactly the predicament one of my private clients had when she first came to me. She was savvy enough to recognize that she needed one if her career was to expand.

And she was genuinely confused about what it might be.

Here are the steps we took:

1. Looked at her work and found the pieces that consistently drew a response from viewers.

2. Lined these pieces up and studied them for common elements in areas of color, painting technique, subject matter, perspective, etc.

3. After identifying the common elements, the artist began the hard work of asking herself “what did it mean to do X” (in one case it was using her palette knife to create spider-web lines between areas on the canvass).

4. Asking “what does it mean?” included writing exercises, keeping a dream journal, an art journal beside her in the studio. Paying attention to what her own sub-conscious was revealing as she set up the direct intention to understand her artistic fingerprint.

5. Finding words to describe the common elements in her work as if they related to a common theme (which, surprise, surprise, they did.)

Each of these steps was incorporated in a dialogue with her coach (me), which is critical to the process. Otherwise, you are asking the eye to see the eye.

If you don’t have a coach, choose someone in your community whose artistic sensibilities you trust and who will understand what you are going for. Someone who will not use this as an opportunity to show off or become a critic, but simply a sounding board for your own developing awareness.

You’ll find your artistic fingerprint is seamlessly part of all that you know, in your heart, to be true about your work.

A couple more notes

Artistic fingerprints, aka your artist voice, hold this intriguing paradox: like the fingerprints on our fingers, they are at once unique and universal–always a fingerprint yet never the same.

They also represent one of the creative responsibilities of choosing to be an artist—“responsibility,” not as duty or code for stiff upper lip, but responsibility to share our truth, as only we can know and experience.

What’s magical is when you give yourself permission to mine your own depths for authenticity, and that which is truly yours, you lead the way for others to know themselves in equal measure. Whether or not they take you up on that is their business. Yours is to always shine the light on your true self.


I’d love to know what challenges have come from your journey with your artistic fingerprint…

P.S. Next up is a series on some futuristic technology and how it’s impacting the art world.

I’m only now researching, so stay tuned and get ready to suit up!



11 Responses to “How Irreplaceable Are You? (Great Art-Part 3)”

  1. Dorothy says:

    Thanks for this insightful post. I paint representational oil still life’s focusing on reflection and translucency. I would like to do some landscapes in a looser style. I’m wondering if that will seem too different from my style? Would I seem too scattered?

    • Hi Dorothy, There are 2 things to consider.

      First, within your current work, are you able to see/experience a clear artistic fingerprint?

      Second, how long have you been doing the current “style,” and how big is your collector list?

      If you’ve been at this a while (3 or more years), and if you’ve built up a following, then when you change direction you need to bring your collectors along with you.

      Let them in on the new direction, talk about what’s changing and why. (Blogs or newsletters are perfect for this, or you could initiate a “collector event” and give a short talk about it, with examples).

      Then, as you change (many artists evolve over their lifetime), be sure you’ve identified a significant enough aspect (or the entire) fingerprint that you continue to use in your evolved “looser” style.

  2. Love this series Ariane.
    As for being authentic, I think that it’s important to recognize that experiments in a new direction (at least in the early stages) don’t belong with previously accepted work.
    In my experience, the true self stuff only starts showing through once you have achieved a level of competency within the new genre. When you are still in the throws of experimenting/learning there is no flow yet. Then suddenly you settle into a flow and get the technique of what you are doing down pat…and ya batta bing ya batta boom…You start showing that inner stuff. This happens especially if you have been using other artists work (dead or alive) or techniques to learn from. You get to a point where you start breaking the rules you learned…a sure sign that you are using your own voice.


    PS: Isn’t it funny how we as artists often fail to see our own work clearly. I think your advice in this article is invaluable for artists. Thank you!

  3. Hi Ariane, How’s things?
    Yesterday, I attended a workshop that involved portfolio critiques for the artists (of all levels) in attendance. One of the artists was a retired art teacher who had the goal of selling her visual art through galleries. She was quite hurt and discouraged by the impersonal rejection she received from the one gallery she submitted her work to. When she showed her portfolio – and I’m sure many of us can relate- it was a variety of media, subject matter and styles. There were pet portrait pastels, close up cropped watercolor works of flowers and dramatic surrealist oil paintings. She struggled a bit with the advice to follow her own voice, and to not take the rejection personally. Today, your remarkable, spot-on blog on this subject arrived in my inbox. Since I always exchange business cards at such events, (guess where I learned that) I have forwarded this link to her, with my praises from what I have reaped from smARTist. At the workshop I did my best and stayed quiet, but realized I had the answer to every one of her questions along with ideas for encouraging advice. But I will leave all that to the expert – you!:D Take care. Christine

    • Wow, Christine…

      Such an amazing peek into your world as I don’t attend art critiques. Yes, she and hundreds like her, are riding the creative high and expecting the world to feel that and simply jump in with them.

      I’m delighted that you have a) found so much of value for smARTist, and b) have such a good heart and in service to others, pass along the info.

      You, my dear, are why I’m here!!!

  4. Ariane,

    What a great series. I think we will discuss some of these things at my next Topeka Art Marketing Salon.

    That and the power of choice. I think the concept of choice comes into valuable play here. Yes, you should have the freedom to do any artwork you want, however, if you do not stay true to your voice (finger print,) then don’t expect a great reception of the entire body of work, simply because you are not being true to yourself.

    Choose to be your own voice in your work, you will see so much more positive response. I think we often forget that we can choose and that the choices we make are valuable and contribute to everything that happens in our lives.

    I especially like your 5 steps and the all important evaluation then writing about the work. I think this is a step that is often overlooked and is one of the most valuable pieces of advice any artist can get.


    • Hi Michelle,

      You are always right here, and I can’t tell you what fun it is to have your dialogue on these posts.

      Definitely choice is the key. However, once we are on the roller coaster, the choice is suspended until it stops.

      This is a lot like the creative high artists experience in the studio and there has to be a cooling off period so the work of assessing and editing can take place. Too many artists skip these steps altogether.

  5. Carol says:

    Great info for the more mature artist, but doesn’t this evolution parallel with our developmental stages as an artist?

    If you were to use Piaget’s approach/theory to child development, ever considered applying that to artistic development?

    Love the “finger print” idea.

    • Not necessarily, as we can become stuck in a developmental stage and never leave it. Happens all the time psychologically. For example, approx. 30% of adults never advance past the stage of concrete thinking.

      And, like the fact that reading a year ahead of where your child can read advances their ability to read at that next level, wouldn’t learning about “mature” artist characteristics be a form of seed planting no matter stage an artist is in?

  6. […] I use by scratching into paint on wax paper and pressing it into the painting. These marks are what Ariane Goodwin, Ed.D. from the smARTist Telesummit calls one’s fingerprint aka one’s artist voice with painting. The marks that make your […]

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