Acquiring Your Own Voice

by June O. Underwood

Like any advice, this article comes with a warning: “your mileage may differ.” By definition, developing your own style or personal voice cannot proceed with set rules. It can only exist on tips, intuitions, serendipitous accidents, and much work.

Following one of my own tips, I am going to leap over the edge, follow my nose, throw caution to the wind, and give advice. Most of the advice, you might note, is not exactly new, either in meaning or wording.

I distinguish between “style” which is something which can easily be recognized by viewers of art, and “voice” which can be recognized first by the maker, and perhaps later by viewers. “Style” is what gallery owners look for (so long as it is a style that sells.) “Voice” is what the artist recognizes as her own, and may or may not be what curators and viewers will be drawn to.

Acquiring a voice is: catching hold and being able to develop that part of the self that is your own; that allows you to sing, and holler, and whisper, and chant, and still sound like yourself. The following five tips for acquiring a personal voice has really helped me.

1. Spend time in the water. The first tip is basic: You cannot swim the channel unless you have swum the pool. Or, if you prefer a marketing circumlocution, “practice, practice, practice.” A professor of mine once said, we should go into the studio at least once a day, if only to vacuum. You cannot win the lottery if you do not buy a ticket. You cannot find a voice if you do not speak.

Workshops count as time in the water, but only if you do as the instructor says, and not as she does. Workshops are special training sessions -- great for tips and techniques, but not to be used for imitation. Imitating your instructor only prompts you to make your teacher’s sounds; it doesn’t develop your own voice.

Once in a while, jump off a cliff into the water, even if you cannot swim. Do the thing that you know is outrageous; choose the technique that you dislike the most; fling fabrics at your design wall, and make use of those which land in the bull’s-eye. Take a workshop with the person you most dread. Then take one from the person whose work you most admire.

2. Pick your battles. In developing your voice, you should pick your battles. Work to your strengths; fight your weaknesses; and accept competency where you are not interested in any greater achievement. I accept that in my sewing skills. I am content with competency and now that I have achieved it, I am not interested in becoming a better seamstress. But my drawing skills are essential to the kind of work I need to do, and I am seriously challenged in my drawing ability. Since I am always striving to draw better, I spend time in the drawing pool, even when I get nosefuls of chlorine.

3. Think. Think exaggeratedly, ridiculously, and imaginatively. Think while doing dishes, or scrubbing the garden furniture, just before sleeping, or when you are with your friends. Much of what is evolving as your own voice is already there to some degree -- peculiarities of stitching, insights into weird and wonderful fabric combinations. But sometimes, the stuck point appears and will not go away. Dithering starts, despair sets in. Indifferent application of disparate, unlike, and wild materials begin to appear willy-nilly. At this point, it is time to ask, “What am I trying to say, and in what tone of voice do I need to say it?” Screaming at a child with an owie generally is not effective; but murmuring soothingly when the kid is about to run in front of a truck will not do, either.

Ask the hard questions; best asked of friends who are both kind and critical, who can see clearly, but would never give advice unless asked. You can sometimes sneak in these questions to yourself as you work, and they will help you at that moment when you want to throw a spool of thread at your design wall. Thought and intuition sit along a continuum, and it is hard to tell where thought leaves off, and intuition begins. When things are going badly try playing along the entire line from sheer thoughtless grabbing of fabrics, to careful consideration of precisely what it is you are attempting.

Other hard questions to consider: Is what you are doing worth it? Are you creating something that is different, goes beyond, sits well beside, and/or perks up that which you are working from? If you are making a Georgia O’Keefe iris, will it be a pale version (regardless of how vivid the colors) of the O’Keefe, and of the iris plant in your garden, or will it change the way we see and love O’Keefe and irises in general?

What “thought” can do, is produce art that comes out of greater depths of your diaphragm. It can produce new ways of looking that lead to new ways of making art. It can pull you through the rough places in your art making. Sometimes the “thought” is unspoken, and most of the time, making art comes out of the depths of the unspoken. But there are times when only thinking out-loud-to-yourself, will get you out of the muck that makes you gurgle rather than sing.

4. Trust the process. Yes, you have to work. Yes, you have to despair. Yes, you have to make three Nancy Crow pieces before you realize that you have done three pieces that look-like-Nancy-Crow-only-not-so-good. Yes, you have to spend more time than you want, and more time than most pieces deserve, and more time in the water than is good for your delicate skin. It might even toughen you up and make you less itchy when the time gets longer than you would like. But if you want to find your own voice, trust that you will find it, if you work, and think, and pick your battles.

5. Play. This means different activities to different people. Painting from photographs is, for me, play. Or making color charts with paint or dye. But going to a movie, sliding down a sliding board, dancing all night, or singing karaoke could also be the right play. Playtime allows seeds to germinate, your voice to rest a bit, and your tone to recover its timbre. It will not necessarily help you find your voice, but it will help you persevere in trusting the process.

Now, note that most of the advice I have given here has been given in clichés. I prefer to call them truisms, old truths that have been around so long, we scarcely hear them anymore. Why should I strive to say differently what others have said so well before? Won’t it be easier for you, my fellow visual artists, to remember “Trust the Process,” “Time in the Water,” “Pick your Battles”, “Think,” and “Play” more readily than any set of compound, complex phrases I could use?

We each have a voice that is recognizable to those who know us. What we develop in art, is a voice that has been greatly enhanced by working at it, by playing with it, by thinking about it, and by trusting that it is ours. We have to trust the process, and know that one day, everyone, not just your mother, will say “I recognized that as your voice the moment I saw it.”

SAQA professional artist member June O. Underwood is a painter and textile artist. She lives in Portland, Oregon and her web site is