Finding Your Artwork: unbelievably simple truths about art making

Wherein I share my youthful ignorance and what I (finally) understood about art making.

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One of the biggest sources of consternation for art school students (and young artists generally) is the need to “find your work”. Finding your artwork is art school speak for, “what should my art be about?”. Alternate versions of this include: “finding your voice”, “finding your style”, and “finding your niche”. It’s a declarative statement about the content, and the subject, and the form of your work. It’s your succinct response to the prompt that you’ll hear again and again… “Tell me about your work.”

Young artists will often lament that they “haven’t found it yet” or are afraid “they won’t find it” or “don’t have a voice”. I viscerally remember these feelings; the guilt, the fear, the toil to find it. It defined my first year at art school… it was… not awesome. It was also incredibly stupid.

So maybe the fledgling artist latches onto an inspirational teacher or a great artist, adopting aspects of their work as their own while they struggle to figure it out. I was incredibly inspired by Michael Kenna, so I lurked around with my camera in the dark. And then I wanted to blend in aspects of Minor White, introducing ‘mysticism’ into my work. I used large format cameras and made contact prints like my favorite instructors. Later, I embraced Keith Carter, adopting bits of his narrative style.

Black and white photograph of a tree in front of a house. Wrapped around the tree is a string of lit-up light bulbs.
A very old image from when I *so badly* wanted to be both Michael Kenna and Minor White.
Spiral Light. ©1993 Ron Johnson

To be clear: it’s fine to try on ideas or techniques for size to see if they fit, but only if they help you figure yourself out. Yes, you’re a product of your influences, but in the end, you must discover your own work.

Now with the wisdom of experience, I know the truth about finding your artwork, and it’s simpler than I could have imagined:

You “find it” by doing it, and by paying attention to what you do.

2) YOUR:
You can’t not make your art, any more than you can’t not be you.

It’s literally your job-to-be-done. It’s for (only) you to do.

1a) Finding your artwork… by doing

This is quite likely the most important advice you’ll receive from me:

Your art, your creative practice, the form and shape of the thing that will most satisfyingly fill your void, will arrive naturally from the act of doing the work.

Creativity is the act of making choices. The subject of your work, the materials you work with, the language you choose or the colors you employ–every single word, every single brushstroke, every single push of the shutter button–are choices that accumulate over time. And that accumulation–the sum product of your choices–is your work.

The struggle for new artists (besides perhaps not understanding the above) is that they haven’t made enough choices yet to see their work clearly. Or they haven’t grappled with key decisions yet, or haven’t repeated the same choice enough to begin to see patterns. Perhaps they aren’t cognizant yet of the choices they’ve made, or even that they’re making choices. They rush to “find it” without realizing that “it” will only emerge from the act of doing it.

1b) Finding your artwork… by paying attention

In today’s world, where the media competes for your eyeballs and a million things are only a click away, paying attention to something is the greatest gift you can give. It’s literally paying–giving something valuable (your time) though attention. You’re focusing on that thing instead of anything else. Attention is finite–you only have so much to give.

Find your work by paying attention: to yourself, your thoughts, your process, your outcomes.

Paying attention means being present in the process; it’s interrogating your decisions and making them intentionally. It is being aware of how your decisions shape the art you make. Paying attention means you are a conscious, active participant, not passive or indifferent.

For example, if you decide to create art exclusively about your relationships, you might also discover that it’s difficult for you or others to see your work objectively, or that you’re predisposed to certain symbols or colors or word choices or settings. Paying attention helps you see these things.

It’s just as important (and maybe more so) to note when your choices aren’t serving you. Maybe working in black-and-white seemed correct in the past, but now you feel limited by that choice and need to start working in color. This is useful information.

Pay attention to what energizes you, and what steals your energy. For me, this has been the most revelatory part of paying attention. Like everywhere in life, some actions will fill you with joy and desire, so much so that doing them leaves you more full of energy than when you started. Other actions deplete you and can leave you exhausted or uninspired. The ones that fill you up… pay attention to these; this is often where you’ll find your work. 

Paying attention–realizing how your choices shape your art, being critical about them, deciding if they still work for you, or don’t… this is just as much a part of the art making process as ideation and technique are.

2) Your artwork… is you

At risk of perpetuating the stereotype that artists can’t separate themselves from their work… everything that you make is a result of you, from you, by you, of you. Your artwork is a manifestation of your choices, which are informed by your education and opinions and thoughts and relationships and the entirety of your life experiences. It’s you, all the way down.

And this is a good thing, because only you have the exact same mix of all these things. There’s only one you. And consequently, only you can make your art.

You can’t not make your art and no one else can make your art.

But I don’t feel that my art represents “me”!

Well, actually it does, it can’t not. If you feel otherwise, it may be because:

  • You’re making the wrong art or for the wrong reasons. Maybe you’re making it for others, or making the art you feel you’re “supposed” to make. Art you making art ‘for the likes’? Because an algorithm told you to? Perhaps it’s time to reconsider your choices.
  • Your skills don’t live up to your vision. Everyone experiences this; it will pass (in time) as you continue making art and your technique improves.
  • Or it’s time to have a think about what “me” means. This may require some meaningful introspection. Try to accept what you discover with open-eyed, open-hearted self-compassion.

Art history. One of the reasons studying art history, all types of history really, is so valuable is that it helps you see the world through the eyes of others. In the same way that your work is shaped by your experiences, so was the case for every artist ever, and you can see it in their art. Learn the history and practices of artists who have perhaps already grappled (and dealt) with challenges not unlike those you face now.

3) You put the ‘work’ in artwork

No matter how great your innate talent, you have to do the work to find your work. Intention, and attention, are not enough. And this is where most people fail (because it’s incredibly hard): you have to keep going, you have to show up, you have to do the work, again and again. And it can take a while–maybe a long while, maybe your whole life, to get it right.

Only by repeating the cycle of…

Text which reads "Create (Do the work), Evaluate (Consider what you did), and Evolve (Decide what to do next).

…will your work evolve into your own. It will continue to evolve, over and over and over, changing as you change, changing in response to what you’ve been and done.


This is the process: to find your art, you have to make art (lots of it, again and again). Think critically. Interrogate your choices. You’ll change and your art will change as you go. There will be times when it’s easier and times when it’s harder. Times when you have to start over and let go of choices that no longer serve you. Times when you’ll be wowed and amazed by what you accomplished.

You’ll find it by making it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

👋 Over to you

  1. Take a look at your last piece of art, and think critically about the choices that informed what you did. Perhaps the materials used, or the process you employed, or the subject of the work. How much time did you allow yourself? Did you start with an idea or did it emerge through action? What do you wish you had done differently?
  2. Make a list of all of these, write down everything you can think of. If possible, order them by how impactful they were to what you made and how you made it.
  3. Now, going over the list, examine which of these choices worked well. Why did they work well? Which did not? Why?
  4. Finally, make something new in response to that evaluation. Make some different choices–keep what’s working, discard what isn’t.

I’m doin’ in the work. How ‘bout you?

P.S. Let us know, what is your work about?

Cover image: Simultaneity No.71. ©2016 Ron Johnson.