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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Creator of Doodlewash® and founder of World Watercolor Month™ (July) and World Watercolor Group™. Sharing daily watercolor illustrations and stories while proudly featuring talented artists from all over the world! If you’d like to be a guest artist on Doodlewash.com, contact me!