Some Thoughts on Developing Your Style

The other day I decided to watch Yao Cheng's intermediate watercolor class on painting florals on Creativebug. (I mentioned it, along with a number of other resources, in my post about learning how to paint from a couple weeks ago). Her style is very different from mine and I thought that I could benefit from looking at watercolor in a looser way than I usually paint. (Also, my friend Dana was filling up her sketchbook with such prettiness after watching the class -- you can see her paintings on Instagram. Scroll down in her feed or get an idea here, here, here and here -- and it looked like so much fun).

Anne Butera, My Giant Strawberry, Watercolors, Painting, Paint Palette, Garden Bouquet

I'm fascinated by how other artists create their art. And I agree with Madeline's comment that it's amazing how artists working with the same materials can come up with very different end products.

watercolor, peonies, botanical, Anne Butera, My Giant Strawberry

It was fun to watch Yao Cheng paint. Her paintings are lovely. But a funny thing happened while I watched. I found myself talking back in my head as she painted some of her botanicals. Comments like, rose leaves don't grow like that. During the class she clearly stated that her aim is not to create realistic flowers, but to capture the essence, energy and movement of the flowers. I was intrigued by my reaction. Looking at her paintings on their own doesn't bring up any objections, but watching her paint and listening to her instructions for painting distinct types of flowers caused a very strong reaction in me.

I started thinking about how an artist develops her/his style of painting. And then I had a realization.

watercolor, paint palette, paint swatches, Nasturtiums, Anne Butera, My Giant Strawberry

I paint the way I do because I am a gardener. I often crawl around in the dirt, tending my plants and studying them. I bring flowers and leaves into my studio when I'm working on a painting. Sometimes I even dig up plants roots and all to use as reference.

on my painting table, wild violets, nature study, Anne Butera, My Giant Strawberry

My paintings aren't photorealistic and I don't want them to be. Also, when I'm planning a painting I don't copy exactly what I see. I often move flowers or leaves in order to create a more pleasing composition. Even so, I do want what I'm painting to be botanically correct.

marigolds, painting, watercolor, botanicals, Anne Butera, My Giant Strawberry

It's important to me. Being a gardener and a studier of my beloved plants directly influences my painting style. I also realized that I don't want that to change. Yao Cheng's style of painting is very popular right now, but I don't want to discard my style and preferences in order to jump on the popularity train. It isn't something I'd really thought about before.

watercolor, paint palette, on my painting table, geraniums, Anne Butera, My Giant Strawberry

Growing plants. Painting plants. The two are naturally connected in my mind. It seems almost too obvious even to mention.

And yet, it's fascinating to think about what influences an artist's style. There are so many factors. Experiences. Background. Inspirations. I think all of those things are also important factors in determining even non-artists' styles and tastes.

If you want to paint (or create in any way), I say follow your heart. Listen to who you are. Don't try to be someone else. Your style is there. You'll find it. The same goes for choosing art for your home. What's right, what goes together, what fits... if you love it, the art will be right, it will go with your other pieces and your furniture, it will fit.

What do you think? Do you have a distinct style? Can you find the influencing factors behind your style?


  1. "I started thinking about how an artist develops her/his style of painting. And then I had a realization. I paint the way I do because I am a gardener."

    This statement is so profound - it answers many of my questions - both asked & unasked. You've given me (us) a lot to think about!

  2. So glad I gave you some food for thought! I'm still thinking a lot about how my style has developed, what sorts of influences I've had (from when I was a child up through now). It's really fascinating to start thinking about!

  3. Great post, Anne!
    I love it, you are so right, we need to be who we are! Well said.

    1. Hi, Carla, I like how you put it, "we need to be who we are". So, so true!

      Thanks so much!

  4. Beautiful work and insight, Anne. Although I love Yao Cheng's work (and some other artists who work in that loose, light style), I find it very trendy right now also. It brings to mind the phrase "a dime a dozen" which as an artist, shouldn't be the goal (at least not mine), but to develop your own unique style and perspective. Even I paint this way in some form or another so studying from botanicals keeps me grounded when I wander too long in this abstracted territory; it reigns me back in.

    Being a relative beginner to wc's, I was wondering if you had any tips on improving watercolor paintings (besides botanical studies) - techniques like calligraphers' drills; oil painters copying from the old masters... or if you could share what helped you most in improving your watercolors.

    I just found your website and so if you've answered this already, I will hopefully find it soon!


    1. Hello, and thank you for stopping by and leaving your comment. I enjoy connecting with my blog readers! Welcome!

      I appreciate what you say about my art. And you're so right about not wanting to be part of the dime a dozen artists. I think that is why I balked at any art instruction that sets out to teach you "how to paint _____". I don't want to recreate someone else's painting. I want to create my own. When you're just learning, that is such a challenge. Struggling with the technical aspects as well as the more creative aspects of painting.

      My biggest tip would probably be to paint often and not to be discouraged. (Ira Glass's advice is so true: I know I've mentioned it again and again, but I think it's something that people learning any art should hear).

      Paint as often as you can. That makes the biggest difference.With each painting you'll learn something; the paint will be your teacher.

      Keep a sketchbook and use it all the time. This was hard for me, but it makes a big difference. Sketch all sorts of things. Use pencil, pen, mixed media... experiment! Testing out what you want to paint in a watercolor sketchbook is very helpful, too. It's something I've only recently begun, but it it's good preparation and practice before starting a larger painting.

      Observe all the time... keep your eyes open observing the world around you. Colors, shapes, the way light acts. Looking is so important to painting. Whenever I want to paint something I spend time studying it first with just my eyes. When I was first starting out this was so important to my learning. I would find my "assignments" this way, looking at something and imagining how I could paint it.

      Also, paint what scares you. Choose a complicated subject that you don't think you'll be able to pull off. It might not be a success, but you'll learn a lot by doing it.

      Observe other artists as well as the world around you. Look at paintings to see how the artist tackled a certain subject or situation. I haven't ever copied the masters, but you can learn a lot just by looking at how others paint.

      Play and experiment. Try new things. Different materials, type of paper, brands and colors of paint, different techniques, entirely different media. Always, have fun.

      I hope this helps! If you have any other questions, I'm always open to them!

    2. Thank you for your reply! I found your website yesterday while googling how to improve watercolor painting and this is by far the most succinct, best answer I've found. I agree with Simone's sentiment - 'yao c-type' watercolors (other than people who have successfully developed this through their own exploration) will likely not stand the test of time as there is little value in people copying a style without using it to explore their own voice. This kind of imitated art lacks meaning and depth, and they are quite frankly missing a good opportunity to come into their own. I can't tell you how much this bothers me on instagram and social media!

      Your limitation in teaching yourself how to paint was a good one (mentioned in your resource roundup, and I can't believe you're self taught!) and I'm finding the same to be true for me; but this limitation may be caused by the uniqueness of our identity through our own art. It's difficult for me to learn from other watercolor artists because I find they teach technique through style which, as a newcomer, is probably only bothersome to me :).

      Would you have any recommendations on good watercolor sketchbooks? Was there a clear point when you said to yourself "I got this!" and clearly felt confident as an artist? I find that I'm always nervous before sitting down to paint because the sessions are such a hit or miss - I'd love to have more control over that outcome. I think your advice really hits home, though, and with it, I should have no reason for feeling nervous :D .

    3. It makes me so happy to know that you found my answer to be helpful. I hope it will encourage you to keep going with your watercolors.

      It's interesting that you mention being nervous, because I used to be so nervous when I would start a painting. Sometimes I'd even hold my breath while I painted. I don't really feel that way anymore (and I hadn't thought about that change... no there wasn't a specific point when I found that I was more confident). There are still nerve-racking moments and times when I have to remember to be patient, take my time and work on my painting bit by bit, through the awkward moments to the finished painting. Because that's another thing I've found. The middle parts of a painting will sometimes not look good. Some of my early paintings were, perhaps, discarded too soon. With the way I paint, layering the watercolor for depth of color, a painting will take a long time. Patience is certainly one of the best skills to have as an artist. Sometimes I still have paintings that I'm not happy with by the time I finish them. I think that's true for all artists. I also think we learn something with each one, whether it's a "success" or not.

      I can certainly relate to your frustration with watercolor instruction. There are some styles that I simply do not like (so many of the books I brought home from the library were like that!), and yet, I think there are techniques and advice that we can take away and use as our own. There are so many little tips and tricks that are hard to figure out by yourself.

      I also relate to what you say about the same-ness of so many people's work... not just in watercolor, but in many different media. Developing your own voice or style takes time. I'm constantly still learning. It's great if we like another artist's style, but if we're stuck imitating someone else, we're not going far enough. I guess it also depends on what the person's end goal is. I would think it would be a sad goal just to want to imitate someone else.

      The watercolor sketchbook I've been using is by Daler Rowney. It's a spiral bound with a linen cover. Only 100 lb cold pressed paper (I prefer 140 lb). It has a medium tooth. I don't love the paper; it sometimes seems to resist the paint a bit, but it's ok for sketching out practice paintings and for testing color swatches. I'm not sure what I'll replace it with once I've filled this one up, though I did bind my own book with better paper: so I might use that.

      My favorite papers are those that come in blocks, glued on all four sides. It keeps the paper from buckling when you use a lot of water. I like cold press papers, but some people prefer hot press. Not all papers react to the water and paint the same way. Experiment to see what brands you like the best (I like Arches... very toothy and the Strathmore 400 series which is less toothy). Another practice option is buying small blocks. I have a couple 4x6 blocks that I've been using to do either small, quick paintings or practice sketches. If you want a book, you can always bind the pages you've created afterwards.

      A bit of a long answer, but I hope you find something helpful in it.

      Keep painting and remember the goal should always include joy!

    4. Thanks so much again for your reply! I finally went to the library which is quite obviously an incredibly rich resource. I shouldn't be relying on the internet for everything :) . (Your handmade book is perfection btw! That pattern is so so beautiful.) I will check out the Daler Rowney sketchbooks. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get a clear winner in all my research on watercolor sketchbooks but at least this forces me to check out a variety of types.

    5. Oops, I meant SOOO beautiful, not as in something is just 'so so' =)

    6. You are very welcome. If you end up finding a sketchbook that you love, please let me know! Enjoy experimenting, researching and painting! And thanks, again, for stopping by!

  5. I don't know if I have a distinct style. When I attended some watercolour painting classes a few years back I used to get so angry with the tutor wanting me to 'loosen up'. I am just not the 'loose' type! She also said that we are not trying to get the image exactly or else we would photograph it, and I get that. I think if I have a style I am probably an illustrator who wants to get it 'right'. Your paintings are beautiful botanical studies Anne and much more than splashing paint about on a canvas which is fine for people who are into that style. Your paintings will stand the test of time and not just adorn a wall as home decor.

    1. That sort of attitude really gets on my nerves. No, getting a careful recreation of what you're painting cannot be replaced with a photograph! A painting is a moment, an experience, a connection caught on paper. Your connection with your subject. Your choice of what to include and what not to include. Your choice of what colors to use. Not everyone wants to paint in a loose way. There are other ways to paint and other styles of painting. Each person should be unique!

      I think ending up with an inflexible teacher with ideas of "right" and "wrong" was one of the reasons I didn't want to take any watercolor classes.

      Sorry to go on with a bit of a rant, but it makes me angry that a teacher's attitude would turn people off.

      Your comments about my art really mean a lot to me. Thank you so much for what you've said!


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