5 Keys to Creating Art That’s All Your Own

Dean Mitchell approaches the question, “Where does originality come from?” and shares his advice on painting from the heart.

Common Dignity (acrylic, 11×16) by Dean Mitchell

“Artists have to constantly realize that art is a language unto itself,” says American artist Dean Mitchell, well known for his figurative works, landscapes, and still lifes in watercolor, oil, and acrylic. “It’s all about communicating human emotions. Whether it’s anxiety — like if you look at a Jackson Pollock you can see that he was a very confused individual, and his work radiates that. There was a lot of tension in that stuff. Out of that craziness emerged some serious human emotional form of communication.”

With the five tips below, Mitchell approaches the question, “Where does originality come from?” and shares how artists can channel their emotions and communication style to paint with their heart and make art that’s all their own.

Melanie the Violinist (watercolor painting, 15″ x 10″) by Dean Mitchell

1. Build Strengths, Probe Weaknesses

Dean Mitchell’s theory is that if you work honestly and follow the flow of your own creative nature, your artistic personality can’t help but surface in time. Then, as you begin to recognize this artistic self, you build on your strengths while at the same time probing your weaknesses.

“My weakness when I was coming up was that I couldn’t make objects look very realistic,” Mitchell says. “I was very good with shapes and composition. But I had a cousin who was very good at rendering objects. So we’d enter these little shows and my cousin would win all the prizes all the time because his stuff was very good technically. I used to get frustrated. My art teacher said, ‘He can render well. But you see abstractly. He doesn’t. You can learn how to render objects.’ But that didn’t mean anything to me then because I wasn’t getting reinforced when I entered the shows.”

2. Use Your Experiences

“To make something your own, you have to bring your own life experiences to it,” Mitchell says. “It has nothing to do with approaches or techniques. It’s a part of living that sets you apart, the fact that your experience is going to be different from another person. That’s what you have to put into a work of art. By painting your experiences and being true to who you are. Out of that will emerge a personality.”

East Point Dock (watercolor, 15×22) by Dean Mitchell

3. Always Experiment

“In the beginning, it was very hard to sell what I do,” Mitchell says. “Nobody wanted it. Particularly if you’re in your 20s or early 30s, trying to make a living as a painter is difficult. First of all, collectors are very skeptical of young painters. They don’t know if you’re going to end up working at the local post office next week. And that has a lot to do with whether you experiment, too. You have to find a balance so that you don’t lose your edge in experimenting in painting, and so that you don’t get trapped into doing the same pot and bowl over and over. Some artists do that; they can render the hell out of an apple. You can almost predict what some artists will paint. It all looks the same. It drives me crazy.”

“You’ll find out that artists who really went with their hearts and went with what they believed in — those are the ones that people truly embrace and remember later.”

But first: Learn from the Masters

If you want your artistic experiments to be meaningful, Mitchell says, you’ve got to master the basics. And in the early stages, that can mean spending some time copying the works of others. “There’s nothing wrong with mimicking others’ work,” Mitchell says. “Picasso did it. Most of the great artists learned that way. You can learn a certain level of skill and technique. But that’s basically all you’re going to learn, because you’re not bringing anything to the table. If you admire somebody, that’s fine. But at some point you have to put all that stuff away, and you sort of emerge from it.”

Watercolor artist Dean Mitchell's work. Southern Tobacco Barn by Dean Mitchell, watercolor painting, 15 x 9.
Southern Tobacco Barn (watercolor painting, 15 x 9) by Dean Mitchell

4. Don’t Strive to Be Liked

“Originality is a matter of perception, depending on who’s viewing the work,” Mitchell says. “There’s really no such thing as originality. No one really created a style. That’s just craziness. That’s a form of commercialization to elevate one artist over another in terms of the marketplace. If you look at a lot of Impressionists, van Gogh’s stuff was heavily influenced by the Japanese woodcuts. So where does originality come into it?”

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block on the path of artistic self-discovery comes at the outset, when you give yourself license to be who you really are. Attitude is key here. As Mitchell points out, most of us want acceptance, whether it be from galleries or other artists. And being yourself may mean not doing exactly what others expect. A little natural rebellious streak is invaluable. “You shouldn’t let anybody deter you,” he says. “There may be a lot of people coming at you — galleries, critics, your other artist friends. They may say, ‘Oh, I don’t really like that.’ Well, my feeling is that you’re not supposed to like everything I do. I don’t like everything I do.”

Old Man Jackson (oil, 24×36) by Dean Mitchell

5. Choose What’s Important to You

“I want my work to be recognizable to people who don’t know anything about art,” Mitchell says. “I grew up with a grandmother who had a fourth grade education and didn’t know anything about art. And I grew up around a lot of people in the South. It was a very rural area; art was not something that was accessible in the sense of understanding and really grasping it. So I always wanted my work to be able to communicate to the common man, no matter what it was.”

Meet the Artist

Dean Mitchell

Dean Mitchell is well known for his figurative works, landscapes, and still lifes in many mediums, including watercolor, acrylics, egg temperas, oils, and pastels. Mitchell has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, American Artist, Artist Magazine, Fine Art International, and Art News. Learn more about him and see more of his work at deanmitchellstudio.com and on his Instagram page, @dean.mitchell.artist.

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