Style vs. Technique

"The Dinghy" by Alan Wolton OPAM

"The Dinghy" by Alan Wolton OPAM

The term “style” with reference to how an artist paints is often misunderstood. I’d say it’s similar to an individual’s handwriting – an illustration of the personality of the individual, very often expressed unconsciously.

An individual style, while part of the artist’s being, can contain a multitude of technical approaches and variations. Thus, technique is the systematic procedure by which the style is conveyed.

We all come into this world as human babies, yet with us, we carry the subconscious skills and memory of a million lifetimes. Parents often believe that they guide and direct their children – perhaps they do. Yet so often children display an aptitude, which is totally foreign to the abilities and ideals of the parents. Inherent subconscious abilities mingle with the new enforced dogma of pre-schooling to mold individual style or character of youth. Then, of course, there is the astrological approach. If you are a Virgo, the chances are you will become a more gentle and precise person than your brother or sister, who is a Sagittarian or Leo. These will often all but challenge life, and are more subjective, possibly less affected by the external world.

In the art world, the Sag or Leo will marvel at the patience and dedication of the Virgo, while the latter is impressed with the out of space creative ability of the former.

Essentially, all this is just words. As individuals, we have become what we have become, for better or for worse. There is little we can do about this, but we can make good use of it.

Conversely, we can discuss technique in art. Here we energize our mental faculty. We can take a shot at any technique out there. It is what each one likes, or perhaps more correctly finds easiest. One’s choice of subject matter is often governed by individual ability. For example, if one has a natural aptitude for realistic drawing, then portraits drawn or painted will be appealing.

The choice of watercolors or oils is often considered. This is definitely a technical choice. Watercolors demand a fluidity and accuracy. Then again, often the most successful watercolor is an accident.

Of oil painting, I often hear that folks like the freedom of scratching the paint off, or simply painting over the initial effort. Actually, I personally don’t buy this concept, it is just plain too messy. A good oil generally starts off clean and simply stated. It requires time to harden and is then completed.

At this point, let us revise. Style is what we are. Technique is a mental playground, it can go anywhere.

So, here is a technical suggestion. On the understanding that we love the joy of transparent watercolor on white paper, yet we are equally infatuated with the loading of impasto oils. Why not combined these two?

Loading watercolors doesn’t work too well. One tends to get a very dark image. I used to do this as a child, but this system is very extravagant and, needless to say, expensive. Adding white to those gorgeous transparent watercolors is a disaster. You might as well just buy gouache colors. But hang on; one of the greatest joys of painting is to portray life as clean and transparent. So stay with watercolors, no white pigment.

Here is the technical suggestion I spoke of earlier. Let us get back to oils. Generally, oil pigments are stipulated as transparent or opaque. For this exercise, transparent colors should be selected. No white paint or opaque colors should be on your palette. Dilute your oils with medium, and paint a very thin layer as you draw. Once you have covered the canvas, stop, and let your work dry. This may take a day or two. After both you and your painting have had a good rest, you are ready to convert your efforts to an oil impasto. Now there is no point in totally covering your transparent lay in. It was good, keep it. There is a technique known as scumbling. Using your oil pigments with as little medium as possible, or none at all, drag your new color over the transparent underlay. A course canvas texture tends to make this easier. The idea being that the visual blend of the scumble color only partly covering your transparencies will yield a vibrant effect. This effect carries twice the emotional and visual excitement of any stirred up blend of color.

So style and technique intermingle. The style is what you are born to do, the technique is what you choose to do!

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  • Ronnie Wilson

    Hi Alan, I have seen your work in magazines, and share your experience of growing up in the RSA.

  • JoseHerb

    You mentioned that the word “style” is often misunderstood.  Do you mean to say that many people misinterpret ‘style’ to be ‘technique’, or is there a different misunderstanding regarding the word ‘style’?  What is the most common belief regarding the definition for ‘style’ ?

    • Alan Wolton OPAM

      Yes, many people do misinterpret style
      as technique. Everyone has his or her own definition of style, just
      as their style is a definition of themselves.

      It is perhaps easier to detail
      technique first because technique is definitely teachable. It is a
      list of details on every aspect of the subject discussed. In the
      case of painting, it may cover the use of color both by light, as in
      theatrical lighting, or as in artist’s pigments. Drawing and
      composition may be considered under this title ie Never put your
      focal point spot center or Thirds breakdown in design is more
      visually interesting than others. The choice of canvas size is also
      definitely mental or a technical one. Size, however, because of the
      belief that small pieces sell, is the problem of the dealer not the
      artist. My experience has been the reverse. Dealers always send the
      little ones back.

      Now let’s have a look at style.
      Children in a class are taught by the same teacher using multiple
      letter cards. Each child will draft and model their ABC’s in as
      close to the instructor’s description as they can. Some will be more
      lyrical, some more angular. The instructor is not concerned about
      their differences as long as the writing is legible. These children
      grow to adulthood. Show me any two of them whose style of
      writing is identical. Each one’s style simply “happened” totally
      independently of any technical tutoring. Perhaps it was their DNA or
      just what they were born to be. What a monotonous world it would be
      if we were all the same. Fortunately God had a better and great

      Style can be favored – but it cannot
      be taught.

  • Jennifer Hunter

    As a painter of both watercolors and oils, I can tell you that my watercolors are planned in multiple layer steps to get to the result I want which does include allowing the paint to move and mingle into a planned pattern. After enough experimentation through the years, I can predict the result.  Watercolor has made me a better oil painter in that I am more direct and precise. The differences are that I have to move the oil paint myself and manipulate the edges, and the paint has a thickness. I often want to leave a lot of transparency in the oils and have to watch that I don’t allow the painting to get too dark by doing that.  The addition of whites into the pigment also changes the color hue which doesn’t happen in transparent paint.  I find that both mediums compliment each other and I enjoy the freshness of changing between them and reversing my thinking.

    • FitzDanny

      Jennifer, I agree with your comments.  Often I feel that watercolor is the ultimate medium – if you have the temperment to handle it.  My oils begin with an initial lay-in of transparent colors only.  To get a light enough transparent value, one has to scrub the diluted pigment into the canvas.  If you are using linseed oil you’re going to get an annoying slimy effect.  The use of 25% stand oil (preoxidized linseed oil) with pure gum turpentine will render your rub-in sticky within minutes.  Without losing your initial transparencies, opaque paint (without the addition of any medium) may be scumbled (dry-brushed in water color) over your base effectively, thus achieving both watercolor and oil qualities in your completed oil.

    • Alan Wolton OPAM

      Jennifer, I agree with your comments.  Often I feel that watercolor is the ultimate medium – if you have the temperament to handle it.  My oils begin with an initial lay-in of transparent colors only.  To get a light enough transparent value, one has to scrub the diluted pigment into the canvas.  If you are using linseed oil you’re going to get an annoying slimy effect.  The use of 25% stand oil (preoxidized linseed oil) with pure gum turpentine will render your rub-in sticky within minutes.  Without losing your initial transparencies, opaque paint (without the addition of any medium) may be scumbled (dry-brushed in water color) over your base effectively, thus achieving both watercolor and oil qualities in your completed oil.

    • Ilse Taylor Hable

      Hi Jennifer,
      I find your comments interesting. About the technique for achieving transparency in oil I have some suggestions you might find useful:

      As we all know, sunlit areas are naturally painted best with opaque,  light colors, containing white. It´s mostly the shadow areas that work well when they look transparent. However, as you mentioned, it can be a challenge to get the right value because transparent colors out of the tube tend to be too dark.

      The effect of transparency can be obtained in several ways, apart from scumbling, even with some use of white or other light colors in the mixture. Everything about painting is relative, therefore you can get the impression of a relatively transparent color by doing one or more of the following:

      1. Put a dark color around or near that transparent area. It tricks the eye into seeing the lighter color  as more transparent and is easy to do, because where there is a shadow you always have a dark object nearby – the one that casts the shadow. 
      2. Look for dark accents within the  outer edges of the shadow area (same optical illusion)
      3. A thick layer of  opaque color next to the thinner transparent color will help too. It will emphasize the difference between the two.
      4. If the transparent area is glass or water, reflections painted in their correct value will also create the illusion of transparency, even if the colors you use are opaque. 

      One thing I don´t agree with is that adding white changes the hue. It changes the value (making it lighter) and also the chroma (making it weaker), but not the hue.

  • J. Stacy Rogers

    While it may be fun, ultimately it’s a waste of time to chase technique approaches and technical choices that clashes with your style i.e. personality type (Sag, Leo, Virgo). If there was a pill that let van Gogh paint with J. S. Sargent’s technical approach, should he take it?

    • Alan Wolton OPAM

      Yes, I agree with you.  Any technical blurb is only worth reading if you think it might help you – or out of pure curiosity.  To an individual with a developed style, be they fire or earth, even if it were at all possible, who would wish to deny their birthright?

      • J. Stacy Rogers

        We all know A.D.D. style painters (fire) with no patience for details and egg tempera painters (ice) with with #000 brushes, very thick glasses and enormous patience. Jung identified eight personality types that determine how we perceive life (via senses or intuition) and make decisions (via logic or feelings). I must admit, I’ve wasted a lot of paint, canvas and personal satisfaction struggling against type. Yes, a “natural” birthright.

  • Jean D. McGuire

    Could you tell me which oil colors are transparent? I know that Alizarin is but I’m not sure of any others. Thank you.

    • Alan Wolton OPAM

      Whether or not a pigment is fully transparent is governed by the manufacturer.  I use Daniel Smith Colors.  In their catalog they indicate Transparent, Semi-transparent and Opaque.  Colors that are mixtures are seldom transparent.  I would suggest you call Daniel Smith at 800 426 6740 and request their catalog.  That will give you full detail.

    • J. Stacy Rogers

      Look on the tube. Each color should be labeled or marked with an icon (open square = transparent, filled square = opaque, etc.) for Transparent or Opaque and Lightfastness.

  • Mary Bechtol

    Over many years I have developed a unique style. Took 30 years to produce a recognizable painting stule  And the goal is to have someone say that’s a Mary Bechtol  (good or bad) and it happens often now. Soo I really liked your blog.  thanks Alan

    • Alan Wolton OPAM

      Mary, congratulations on achieving your recognizable painting style.  Often it takes us time to quit being proper – doing what we are supposed to do – according to the book.  Strangely enough I choose not to care about my style.  The older I get the more impatient I become.  My style keeps current with me despite myself.  Often I’m quite surprised what gets on the canvas.  Continue your good work!