In 1886, when Georges Seurat painted A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, it caused a scandal. Critics ridiculed it, and established painters roundly dismissed it. Paul Cézanne was rejected by the Salon in Paris six years in a row. One critic said Claude Monet’s paintings weren’t worthy of being used as wallpaper. 

These three artists went against the grain, despite pressure to conform. And in staying true to their creative voice, they changed the art world forever. They aren’t the only ones, either; The arts are defined, in part, by trends, but they’re also shaped by those who resist the temptation to be like everyone else. 

In 2019, what does it take to have the originality of Seurat, the boldness of Monet, the persistence of Cézanne? We interviewed nine contemporary artists working across media to tell us about finding their voice and sticking to it. Read on to learn the surprising ways they’ve tapped into what makes them different and used it to their advantage. 

In the studio with ‘Old Growth’ and ‘Postfire’ © Zoe Keller
In the studio with ‘Old Growth’ and ‘Postfire’ © Zoe Keller

On taking risks… 

Zoe Keller: Most of the risky-feeling pieces that I’ve made–in terms of scale, level of detail, or subject matter–have been the ones that folks are most excited about. I made those “risky” pieces because I wanted to make them, even though I wasn’t sure how they would be received, or if they would sell, or if I would even be able to finish them. I think that if I continue to make work from that place of curiosity and uncertainty, I’ll come closer and closer to the work that feels the truest and most exciting to me.

‘dissolution’ © Hanna Lee Joshi
‘dissolution’ © Hanna Lee Joshi

On being honest… 

Hanna Lee Joshi: A few years ago, I was battling Graves disease and the physical and mental turmoil that comes with it. I started drawing every day as a way to cope. It became part of my healing process. I made work that was very honest and came from deeply personal experiences. When I started out, I had no clue how to develop my own style, but I found it by embracing myself fully in my art practice.  

‘The Wake’ © Prudence Flint
‘The Wake’ © Prudence Flint

On finding courage… 

Prudence Flint: The pressure to conform is a huge issue for artists because we want to be included, to be seen, and to have a voice. I have been writing in a journal since I was nineteen. I use it as a place to unpack all my conflicting feelings and take the risk to put them down in writing. It’s part of developing a relationship with myself.

Social media can encourage a kind of group think, and when your ideas are elsewhere, it’s easy to feel bullied into staying silent. I am interested in my ambivalence, my uncertainty, my fears, and my fantasies and what they reveal about the psychology of being human. Writing in my journal helps me stay true to these deep interests.

‘Vacuum Cleaner’ © Ulla-Stina Wikander
‘Vacuum Cleaner’ © Ulla-Stina Wikander

On not “fitting in”… 

Ulla-Stina Wikander: The kind of work I do doesn’t fit in properly and is a bit separate from the rest of the art world. It was a coincidence that I started doing it in the first place. I had collected cross stitch embroideries for many years, and I just didn’t know what to do with them. I covered my broken vacuum cleaner in embroidery on a whim. 

I had never been interested in textile art, and my education was in painting and sculpture, but I knew that I wanted to experiment with more objects like the “dressed up” vacuum cleaner. From that moment, I have continued to work with ordinary household items and tried to transform them into art.

‘The Machine Man 4’ (graphite and charcoal on paper, 70x100 cm, 2019) © Arinze Stanley
‘The Machine Man 4’ (graphite and charcoal on paper, 70×100 cm, 2019) © Arinze Stanley

On making a difference… 

Arinze Stanley: As a self-taught Nigerian artist and activist, I tell stories affecting my society and environment. People often ask me why I don’t represent other societies in my artwork. But my society is of the utmost importance to me. 

I have to speak through my works about things I care about, including modern slavery, sexism, and racism. I will continue to do so until things change and these problems are fixed, and that’s going to be a long journey. I stay true to my vision and my goals, and I refuse to be influenced by different ideologies out there. 

‘Two little polar bears’ © Charlie Elms (   @10.years.time   )
‘Two little polar bears’ © Charlie Elms (@10.years.time)

On slowing down… 

Charlie Elms: I’m not sure I’ve landed on my “unique voice” yet. It always seems to be evolving, which keeps things interesting for me. There’s always a distant fear of not growing as an artist, and that makes me more selective and critical about my work. It can often slow me down and reduce the amount of work I produce, but ultimately, there’s a lot more thought going into each piece. I spend much longer on each piece now than I did a few years back, and it usually leads to something I’m really proud of.  

Sketchbook Page XII © Oriol Angrill
Sketchbook Page XII © Oriol Angrill

On forgetting about “likes”… 

Oriol Angrill: What happened to me early on with Instagram was that I changed the way I worked to suit my followers. I started to draw faster so I could post more drawings and get rewarded with more likes. Having to modify my comfort zone changed the way I produce my drawings, and not in a positive way. It was a kind of toxic love affair, and I knew I had to change the way I use social media. 

It’s funny and scary to hear about people who are addicted to posting work constantly. I live in the present, and once I have done all the things I want to do, then yes, I take out the phone to check or even post if it’s worth it. I resist pressure by ignoring the algorithm. I don’t care about likes anymore. I trust in my work and keep my personal life private. 

On finding the right network… 

Clémentine de Chabaneix: Working with art dealers can influence your work because they know what kind of work they can sell. For that reason, I’ve always worked with people who respect my point of view. I work with art dealers who are open to discussions. Life is a combination of dreams and compromises, but my job is to find a way to follow my own vision, no matter what. 

"A Library by the Tyrrhenian Sea" © Ilya Milstein 2018
“A Library by the Tyrrhenian Sea” © Ilya Milstein 2018

On enjoying the journey… 

Ilya Milstein: I think a lot of kids and graduates today feel extraordinary pressure to find “a style.” I certainly did when I was at art school. If I could turn back the clock, I’d reprimand my 21-year-old self. There’s no rush, and there’s no need to feel intimidated by peers who are enjoying early success. 

Focus instead on enjoying life. Be a good friend (or daughter, brother, etc.), travel, make mistakes that can be fixed, and try new things. Have a weird job or two. Expose yourself to as much art, culture, and humanity as you can. Then pick up your pen again. 

Looking for ways to lean into your unique creative spirit? Check out Shantell Martin’s Drawing on Everything: Discovering Your Creative Voice for great tips on how to get started.

Cover image by Skillshare student San C. for Getting into Gouache – Creating Bold, Brave Gouache Paintings with Arleesha Yetzer. For more information on Feature Shoot, click here.