Watercolor Painting by Erin Vaganos - Doodlewash #WorldWatercolorGroup

GUEST ARTIST: “Evolving Into Your Own Style” by Erin Vaganos

My name is Erin Vaganos and I’m originally from a town near the Finger Lakes Region of New York State and now live in Castro Valley, California. I took a few illustration classes in college, and style development was the number one thing focused on by teachers and students alike. It’s what sets you apart from others working in similar media, a signature without the scrawl of your name, how you see and experience the world as an individual, what moves you and what sets your imagination free.

It’s never static, and even when you think you’re falling into a comfortable aesthetic groove, you discover something new in the process of painting—an unfamiliar/neglected technique, a different way to use a brush, subject matter that you’ve never before attempted—that changes your approach and disrupts your SOP (Standard Operating Procedure). And the evolution continues.

Watercolor Painting by Erin Vaganos - Doodlewash #WorldWatercolorGroup

I started painting in watercolor when I was around 12 and my mom sent me to learn with a lovely older woman who was VERY proficient, but style didn’t become an important aspect of painting for me until much later, after I learned the “mechanics” of watercolor and experimented with those basic methods.

And that took a while; in fact, I DETESTED watercolor during that preparatory phase because it was so alien compared to what I was used to (which was colored pencil and tempera paint). For some reason, I kept at it (both my mom and my teacher were very encouraging) and grew to truly love working in watercolor.

In college, I majored in art history and got a good introduction to artistic trends characterizing a range of cultures and time periods. Along the way, I discovered my own likes and dislikes.

After I graduated, I started painting in earnest and imitated those artists whom I loved (Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Albrecht Durer, Alphonse Mucha and other Art Nouveau artists, and the fantasy artist Stephanie Law), employing a combination of watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil.

Watercolor Painting by Erin Vaganos - Doodlewash #WorldWatercolorGroup
Whale Play

And sometimes, the reception was not so positive; many people criticized me for “copying” these artists, said that I should get my own style. As a novice painter, I took their judgments to heart and believed this so-called advice, but looking back I have to say that I am not sorry at all for trying to emulate those artists. I learned a lot of advanced techniques, how to render realistically, and honed my skills by copying those artists.

After a while, that way of painting didn’t resonate with me the way it did when I was actively learning the techniques that defined that style, and I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.

It was really difficult for me to break out of that course of painting though and it became a grind. It seemed like I just couldn’t jettison those parts of the process that were holding me back because the methods became so habitual.

Watercolor Painting by Erin Vaganos - Doodlewash #WorldWatercolorGroup

But then I started experimenting, went back to painting from life, approaching my subject matter not so seriously and not expecting any particular end result. I took out how-to books from the library and discovered negative painting. And I rediscovered artists whom I loved secretly, and the little nuances that distinguished their work started to inform mine (Kay Nielsen, Eyvind Earle, Charley Harper, Henri Rousseau, Ray Morimura).

Watercolor Painting by Erin Vaganos - Doodlewash #WorldWatercolorGroup
Ball Jar Daisies

But this time, it wasn’t just copying; I went in their direction but sort of forged a path of my own because of this newfound confidence I gained just painting without reservation from life. And I was painting a lot more, not caring about making mistakes.

Granted, I have a long way to go still; I wish I had more time to paint. And it’s still terrifying when I start a new painting because I wing it most of the time—I don’t sketch out compositions beforehand (although, I do have a general idea in my head). But now I embrace the terror because for me, it’s a prerequisite for creation—I need that fear to push me along, to finish the painting.

Watercolor Painting by Erin Vaganos - Doodlewash #WorldWatercolorGroup
Kite Dream

And I know now that there will be at least some measure of love for the end piece. Every painting is a journey, some with more scenic parts and beauty than others, but those bumpy ones that are especially tricky or exasperating, the ones that really exercise our physical skills and mental capacities to solve visual problems, they are the ones that make us better artists.

Good luck to you artists on all your journeys ahead.

Erin Vaganos
Blog & Website

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34 thoughts on “GUEST ARTIST: “Evolving Into Your Own Style” by Erin Vaganos

  1. Thank you for sharing your beautiful paintings and your story. In terms of style, I feel like I have my own style (as opposed to trying to emulate others) but am a bit of a Jack of All Trades and Master or None in that I don’t have one identifiable, signature style. I flit around between different modes of drawing/painting/creating too much to really hone my own style I suppose. Reading your guest post has prompted me to ponder this whole issue of style some more so thank you for that.

    1. Laura, I get that. Whenever I work in acrylic, as opposed to watercolor, I always get a different feel and overall feel from those paintings. Working in different media helps me loosen up in my watercolor approach, even change some things…there is a great book called Art and Fear that delves into the subject, and I’ve read it multiple times!

  2. Your paintings are so original and gorgeous! As a self taught beginner painter I am also just copying the creations of others and discovering how watercolour works at the same time, and one day I hope to be confident enough to just let go and find my style too, so your journey is very inspiring to me. Thanks for sharing it.

    1. Thank you! You will get there! Just keep painting…once you develop your skills, you will gravitate toward some things, cast aside other things, and the combination will be all your own. Good luck on your journey!

  3. Loved everything about this article and your art! Especially the bit about finding your own path. That’s where I am right now. I try a few techniques I like here and there, but I’m starting to see I have better luck and am more satisfied with my work when I stop looking for inspiration online (or elsewhere printed) and paint first, and look up something I may be stuck on later, if at all. Thank you for sharing!

    1. I am the same way, Jill…I feel like the internet is one of those scary deep-sea angler fish with that light protruding from their head, luring me in to devour me, haha. Once I extricate myself, do my own thing, find my own inspiration, I’m a lot better off! Glad you enjoyed the article!!

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