How do you find your personal voice? I get this question a lot. I feel like I have a few answers because I really struggled with this for a long time, but have finally found it. That was a really big deal, when I realized I had just one!

Part of the confusion for me began because I loved every medium I tried and could get my hands on. However, I was so process oriented that I kind of "went with the flow" of what the medium was best at. With watercolor, which is where I began, it was colored water I was painting with. It seemed natural, then, to let the washes flow any which way on wet paper and love the beautiful amorphous shapes that appeared. I did learn about edges in watercolor, and to this day I feel edges are extremely important.

As I went on to Acrylic/Mixed media, then encaustic, then encaustic monotype, each technique had its pros and cons, ie, what could be done easily, and what took effort. The light bulb went on for me when I hit a plateau in the 90s and quit painting for 10 years. I was so bored with my watercolors, the "pretty florals and landscapes", that it wasn't fun anymore. I sold work, but that wasn't enough to overcome the boredom, thank goodness for that! Instead, I came out of the drought by pursuing answers through art classes I started taking at the Univ of Montana in 2008. I didn't know where it would lead, but I was hoping to find that missing "something".

I won't go into all the gory details, but it was having to come up with a thesis that really solidified my voice. Anyone can do it, though; you don't have to go to school. What does it require? Art is a science, and by that I mean it is something you can actually study. My thesis took work. I researched my topic (back in those days) and fleshed out every avenue I could to see how I could use my creativity to express my thoughts (about terrorism; yup! that's what my thesis was about, if you can believe that. Regardless, when I found that place where I could connect feelings of fear, trauma, suffering, death, etc. with art, I knew that at least in that moment, I was finding my personal voice. At that time, my science background came roaring to the forefront. It kind of gave me the substance to flesh out my art. I went on to do a solo museum exhibition on pathogens; more death and suffering. This was my comfort zone, but the catharsis is over. What happened next?

I had painted in watercolor for about 15 years and had considerable success, if you count juried shows, galleries and sales, But, after grad school, I wanted to paint what I felt, not what was "pretty" or socially acceptable. Since I've always been more drawn to non-objective art than realism or abstract realism or any other kind of ism out there, I began to feel my way through shape, color, line, texture - all the design elements were what I started "eating". I could mix and match different things in any painting - and the more I dove into these elements, the more I started to "feel" what I loved. Certain subtle shifts in value, a glaze, a shape. I also discovered that allowing myself to play and create the ugliest thing in the world is important. Only when you've gone to the bottom of the barrel (like past life experiences), can you crawl your way back out. When you're desperate to find something that will save you, you tend to figure it out.

Working in multiple mediums - encaustic, encaustic monotype, acrylic and cold wax painting - will make any artist feel a little schizophrenic, I'm afraid. But, what I discovered was that it was up to me, once again, to "do my research" - you know those 10,000 hours we're supposed to put in?! A light bulb came on when I realized I had to make each medium comply to my needs, rather than accepting like a limp towel what each medium did best. Just because encaustic cools quickly and creates a gorgeous lustre without even trying didn't answer the problem I had of getting the marks and lines I knew I had to have. I needed to try a lot of different ways to get fine lines, dots, patterns, etc. with hot wax and keep trying until I figure it out. This was my personal voice pushing me to do so; these things were "problems" and the solutions do not happen by chance - it requires experimentation and curiosity. Cold wax medium is great for layering and texturing, but I now know my personal voice requires lots of strange shapes, mark making and color that has lived a long life (via addition, subtraction, repeat). Again, I needed to train the medium to comply to my needs, rather than just accept what comes so easily (texture). In fact, cold wax medium is by nature such a textured medium that I spend more time getting rid of it than creating it! I love texture, but only in the quantities that suit my personal voice.

Art and life are problem solving. Great art, like life, is full of lots of problems. The solutions in art, including the big problem of finding our voice, only require us to show up, put paint down, move it around, and decide if we like it, or don't like it. That's the answer to your personal voice. Give yourself lots of options - gaudy, bright, bold, gray, patterns, dark, light, huge, tiny, etc - like the food you now love or your favorite outfit, movie or hairstyle, did you really need to ask anyone what you liked? You'll just know when you've fallen in love. Part of the reason it may seem difficult, though, is that you just lack the information it takes to use the "alphabet of art" - because there is one, just like in any language you've learned. The individual letters, though, take on a new form in art. It is a visual language of art: it is made up of value, shape, color, line, texture, direction and size; it is balance, harmony, unity, repetition, etc. How you put these together in your visual sentences, paragraphs and chapters is what allows you to express your personal voice.

In art, it's one thing to identify things by accident and intuition, but it's totally another thing to not only train your eye to spot the diamonds in the rough that personify you, but then have a solid understanding of how to "speak" the language of art so you can communicate your unique and personal voice clearly...your "je ne sais quoi" (which I learned in grad school)-- "That quality that eludes description", like Mona Lise's smile.

Happy Painting,