Immersed is a series of profiles on millennials and their vocations. No profile is quite the same.
Ep. 2: Finding your style as a creative, with Alexander Steenhorst.
Alexander Steenhorst is an artist, author and visual designer, based in Amsterdam.
Throughout the article, in chronological order, the photos show Alex at work drawing a caricature of me, from sketch to final, digitized version.
A creative’s work is a story, played out over a lifetime, in which they communicate to the world their way of being in the world.
“What is it you want to communicate to others?” Alexander had asked me. The question stuck in my mind and has ever since. Put another way, are you truthful to your own ideas, or are you trying to please others?
Mr. Night-Time Hobbyist
Alex and I were college buddies. Whenever I dropped by his place I often found him in his room behind his desk, in the middle of some elaborate drawing. Eyes intently focused on the screen, scribbling away on his Wacom tablet with a surgeon’s precision, patiently orchestrating dozens of Photoshop layers into a single cohesive piece of art.
“Hey man, just a second, let me finish this first.”
And over the last few years I saw Mr. Night-Time Hobbyist - "I'm just doing this for fun" - slowly transition into becoming a professional visual designer at Ink Strategy, as well as continuing to work on his personal work, the latest of which is his first children’s book, Meneer Blubber (in English: Mr. Mud).
So after I came back from Lisbon we met up and had a long talk about art, creativity and finding your style as a creative. In the meantime he sketched a caricature of me. And while Alex, ever the perfectionist, wasn’t that stoked on the initial sketch, I am really digging the digitized end result.
'I wish I was creative too'
One of the first things we discussed was one of our culture’s most perilous myths: that creativity is a fixed state instead of something you can develop over time.
You either are or you aren’t. You’re either Dalí or you're an accountant. But as filmmaker Robert Rodriguez once put it, “and if you say you’re not creative, look at how much you’re missing out on just because you’ve told yourself that.” Alex was of similar opinion.
“Often, whenever I tell someone that I make drawings for a living, people react enthusiastically about how they like that I’m doing something creative, and then they tell me they wish they themselves were creative as well. And being creative comes easy to me and I know that it’s a very complex subject, but I also feel that if you want to do something creative then you should just go do it. Go bake pies or whatever, it doesn’t matter.”
Echoing a similar sentiment once expressed by American physicist Richard Feynman - “Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter.” - Alex continued:
“What it’s about is that you start doing something that you like. I think that’s where creativity comes from. And if being a lawyer is your passion, then that’s totally cool and by all means go do that and be creative in that profession.
But a lot of people then tell me they don’t know what they want. But I think you do know what you want, everybody knows what they want, they’re just too afraid to go for it.”
The origin of style
Alex, who himself has a very distinct visual style, argued that someone’s style is always present in their work, however unrefined or subtle and no matter what stage of someone’s development.
“A buddy of mine doesn’t believe in personality, he thinks that how you behave is dependent on the people around you. It’s the nature versus nurture debate, whether you are who you are or whether you are shaped by your environment. I think it’s both, but I also think that when it comes to style to a large extent it’s also something you just inherently possess."
"Take Mondriaan for example. In the beginning he just drew trees, very sec. Just a tree. He’d use one color for the foreground, a light line around the tree, and one color for the background. Not detailed at all. That was all. Then eventually he’d done that so much that he just focused on the essence of the tree, and he just started doing the lines and the squares. And then finally he totally let go of the concept of a tree entirely and just started drawing lines, very geometrically. But I think that even before he was an artist he was already interested in lines, whether consciously or not. And while his style swayed back and forth in the beginning, every time he took a little step closer towards his own vision.
He wasn’t the Mondriaan we all know now. He’d spent a lot of time experimenting, but you can see that common thread in all his works, and you can see where it was going."
Just like your personal character - that which makes you uniquely you - there will be a singularly defining idiosyncratic thread weaving itself through your body of work; a vision, a way of capturing or shaping reality, however muddled in the beginning.
I assume this is what most creators spend up to a lifetime working on: removing the opacity and the superfluous from their work. And the great artists succeed in that. You pick up a Picasso and you’ll immediately know it’s a Picasso. His works aren’t just skillful and distinctive, but they’re also the realization of his vision.
“There’s this notion in art academies that you mostly focus on finding your style as an artist. I don’t agree with that at all. I think both the development of your skillset and the finding of your personal style go hand in hand. It’s a messy, chaotic process but you’ve just got to trust that it’s going to work out over time.
I also think that it’s very important that you have a story to tell, instead of merely a gimmick or a trick. I think that even as an artist Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle is very applicable. You know, his ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘why’. As an artist, you should be occupied with the ‘why’ primarily. Going back to Mondriaan, he was thinking about ‘why lines?’ and then he went deep into that and came out with his own personal interpretation about the why of lines.
Of course you have to pick your medium and you have to have put in the work to become very skilled at your craft, but you should also be thinking about is what it is you want to communicate to others.”
How to cultivate your style
I asked Alex how we should go about cultivating our style. His answer was in a way reminiscent to Henry Miller - “perhaps it is curiosity — about anything and everything — that made me the writer I am. It has never left me… With this attribute goes another which I prize above everything else, and that is the sense of wonder” - when he was asked what he credited his success as a writer on.
“When it comes to developing your style, that’s why you should read books, watch movies and look at other people’s work. So that’s very different than just doing more drawings. It’s research, and it’s often research outside of your field.
For instance, I really like absurdism, which basically is about not taking life too seriously and instead focusing on enjoyment, take Monty Python for example. So I really like that style and now I want to focus on that more, so what I’m doing right now is doing a lot of reading about the philosophy behind it. And in doing so I come up with new insights and new ideas to experiment with.
I think you have to realize that being creative always involves endless experimentation. And maybe you even have to experiment with things you don’t like to do, because it pulls you out of your comfort zone and so you might learn something from it. I really like manga, but every now and again I try to do a painting which doesn’t use any manga techniques at all. And sometimes I take something away from that which I can then incorporate into my manga, but sometimes it also confirms that what I really like to draw is manga.”
Lastly, I asked Alex about money. Alex made the compelling argument that the entire concept of money should be absent in the process of finding your style as a creative, because it’s not helpful for your development. Do whatever you have to do to make ends meet and just focus on patiently making ‘joyful progress’ in the free time that you have. And when you're ready, you'll know it. 'Hurry slowly,' as Jocelyn K. Glei would say.
“I don’t believe in the concept of ‘making money.’ Of course you need money, but I’d rather believe in thinking about who you are, what it is you’re doing and what you want to accomplish. Do you feel that you’re making progress along those lines?”
“And when you really focus on what you want to become, then after a while you’ll sort of buy this image of an artist. And then people will start coming to you to hire you for an assignment, because you’ve spent your time developing your own specific style and story as a creative. At least, I think that’s how it works.”
The final piece
“In our case, for this sketch I could’ve chosen to use a technique that I’ve already mastered, but because I already know how to do that I’d rather try and experiment with something new.”