Find Your Artistic Voice

The Essential Guide to Working Your Creative Magic


By Lisa Congdon

Read by Lisa Congdon

Formats and Prices


Audiobook Download (Unabridged)


Audiobook Download (Unabridged)

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 6, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Bestselling author, artist, and illustrator Lisa Congdon brings her expertise to this guide to the process of artistic self-discovery.

Find Your Artistic Voice helps artists and creatives identify and nurture their own visual identity.

This one-of-a-kind book
helps artists navigate the influence of creators they admire, while simultaneously appreciating the value of their personal journey.
• Features down-to-earth and encouraging advice from Congdon herself
• Filled with interviews with established artists, illustrators, and creatives
• Answers the question how do I develop a unique artistic style?”

An artist’s voice is their calling card—it’s what makes each of their works vital and particular




Nonconformity is not only a desirable thing, it is a factual thing . . . all art is based on nonconformity . . . Without nonconformity, we would have had no Bill of Rights or Magna Carta, no public education system, no nation upon this continent, no continent, no science at all, no philosophy, and considerably fewer religions.

—Ben Shahn

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to fit in. I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in suburban Northern California, in a neighborhood of cookie-cutter tract homes—ours was exactly the same as about twelve others on the street. On the first day of sixth grade, Lisa Bundy, my assigned desk mate, turned to me and asked where my mom bought my clothes. “JCPenney?” I replied sheepishly. “Oh, no,” she said with disdain. “Bullock’s is the best place to buy clothes. JCPenney is tacky.” I went home that day and informed my mother in no uncertain terms that I was only shopping at Bullock’s from that day forward. In junior high and high school, I studied with devotion the then-popular Official Preppy Handbook, the ultimate guidebook for conforming. Years later, I went off to a Catholic college, and despite the fact that I was not Catholic or at all religious, I began attending Catholic Mass with my friends, simply so that I would feel more accepted and part of the crowd. For the first part of my life, conformity was everything to me. I just wanted to be like everyone else.

When I was twenty-two years old, in May of 1990, I graduated from that Catholic college and moved the next day, quite fortuitously, to the city of San Francisco, and my entire interior world exploded. I realized after only a week there what Ben Shahn once so eloquently expressed: Conformity was for the birds. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by diverse cultures, a spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations, books, film, and fashion—and, most significantly, art.

I became a voracious consumer of art—in particular, visual art—and I began visiting museums whenever I could, borrowing books about art and design movements from the library, or purchasing used copies of artists’ biographies at my local bookshop and reading them with devotion. Through this new window into the world, I began to appreciate the value in being different and in putting one’s own ideas—however weird they might be—into the world. From there, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction. Each day that passed, I began more and more to value nonconformity, not only in others, but also in myself.

But it wasn’t until I began making art (inspired, in part, by all the artists I was reading about) and began to identify as an artist myself that I appreciated how profoundly important nonconformity was. While in mainstream culture, idiosyncrasies and differences are often seen as flaws; in our world—the world of artists—they are your strength. They are part of what embody your artistic “voice”: all of the characteristics that make your artwork distinct from the artwork of other artists, like how you use colors or symbols, how you apply lines and patterns, your subject matter choices, and what your work communicates.

Like most people, deep down inside, I have always felt a tension between fitting in and standing out. When I began making art in my early thirties as a hobby, and then again when I began my professional career nearly a decade later, I found myself pondering endless questions about where I was headed as an artist. “Do I want to become part of a movement in art or a particular genre? Do I want to focus on or ignore what is currently trendy? Is it even possible to be completely original? Who do I want to be as an artist? What do I want to communicate through my work?”

What I didn’t fully understand at the time was that asking these kinds of questions was an indicator that I was in the beginning stages of discovering (and working toward) my own artistic voice—all the specific stories, colors, markers, symbols, lines, and patterns that I would eventually infuse into my work. When we are in the process of finding our artistic voice, we are almost constantly straddling the planes of belonging and independence, of being part of a movement and having our own unique form of expression, of emulating artists we admire and breaking away from them.

Finding your voice is one of the most important experiences you will ever have. And the process cannot be rushed. Likewise, it isn’t just something that magically “happens.” Instead, it’s both an exercise in discipline and a process of discovery that allows for—and requires—a lot of experimentation and failure. Most of the time, finding your voice takes years of practice and repetition, frustration, agony, humiliation, and self-doubt.

Given its importance, and the challenges associated with it, you’d think the process of developing your artistic voice is something artists would talk about openly, all the time. And yet it is a topic we rarely discuss, except perhaps in some art education programs. The truth is, there are very few artists out there, especially in the first years of their treks, who haven’t wondered at some point or another, “Have I found my voice yet?” Or, most certainly, “When will I finally find my voice?” Or “I think I’ve found it, but how can I be sure?”

These questions are common because the process of finding your voice can feel mysterious or daunting, like something only “certain other” people are born with the ability to achieve. Contributing to the mystery is the fact that there is no absolute, clear, and perfectly defined, measurable picture of what finding your voice looks like. In fact, every artist’s voice looks and feels different. By definition, your artistic voice is what differentiates you from other artists, not what makes you similar. By contrast, for example, many athletes set performance goals that are measurable and easily comparable to other athletes in the same sport based on set standards: number of goals scored, seconds or minutes it takes to complete a specific distance, or distance completed in a specific amount of time. As an artist, your goals are things like nonconformity and difference, neither of which is based on a shared set of measurable outcomes. When you have found your voice, it will look very different than when I have found mine.

To make matters more confusing, the term “finding your voice” is a bit misleading. Finding your voice sounds like arriving at something fixed and final. It implies that once you have found your artistic voice, it will remain unchanged for eternity. In reality, even once you’ve found it, your artistic voice is always evolving, sometimes subtly and sometimes in more obvious and intentional ways.

And finally, making things even more complicated, while one of your goals is finding a voice that’s distinct from other artists, it rarely happens without their influence. With rare exceptions, we become who we become as artists because we are influenced by other artists, not despite that fact. No idea is completely original, and being influenced by the work of other creative people and movements is part of the process of finding your voice.

The process of finding your voice is like uncovering your own superpower. Your artistic voice is what sets you apart and, ultimately, what makes your work interesting, distinctive, worthy of discourse, and desired by others. No matter your medium or genre, having your own voice is the holy grail. I aim to help you understand what it means to have an artistic voice and why having one matters. In this book, I also share approaches for navigating through tricky things like influence and fear, along with practical tips for deepening your voice-finding experience. And you won’t just hear from me—you’ll find real talk and advice from ten working artists on the topic. Ultimately, my goal is to demystify the voice-finding process so you can more easily work your creative magic.

This book is intended for every category of artist: amateurs, lifelong hobby artists, aspiring professionals, and current professionals alike. Whether you are just starting your artistic journey, are right in the middle of it, or are rejoining after a hiatus, I hope you find this book edifying, encouraging, and motivating.





Your artistic voice is your own point of view as an artist. It includes your particular style—things like your own color palette, symbols, lines, and markings—your skill, your subject matter, your medium, and the consistency with which you use all of these things. It reflects your unique perspective, life experience, identity, and values, and it is a reflection of what matters to you. Ultimately, it’s what makes your work yours, what sets your work apart, and what makes it different from everyone else’s—even from artists whose work is similar. Your voice is formed over time through continuous experimentation and intentional practice, and from following spurts of inspiration and intuition down long paths of development.

Most artists are so busy simply attempting to produce satisfying work or make a living that they forget that, ultimately, they are making work to communicate their own version of the truth. We make work that mirrors our own deeply held ideas about the world. Those ideas are sometimes really simple things like:

Tulips are pretty.

The sunset is the most beautiful moment in the day.

A simple grid is the most visually satisfying image.

And sometimes our ideas are complex and complicated things like:

I am oppressed.

The universe is chaos.

There is light in struggle.

Most of the time the ways in which your truth emerges from your work are somewhere in the middle, between simple and complicated. What you create and how you communicate your truth reflects your personal history, your identity, your ideas, your hopes, your pains, and your obsessions. Making art is an enormously personal experience, no matter your style or subject matter.

Ultimately, as you work to find your voice, all the elements of your voice (style, skill, subject matter, medium, and consistency) become inextricably enmeshed. Your work simply becomes yours. In fact, how the elements of your artistic voice play together is what gives your voice a personality.

But when you are in the process of developing your artistic voice, it’s helpful to step back and understand what comprises a voice so you can think about what areas you might want to hone further or develop more deeply. In truth, most artists’ voices, while hard to tease apart, have several distinct components. For some artists, certain components are their identifying markers more than other components, but all the components make up one’s artistic voice.

Get ready to learn about the major elements of artistic voice: style, skill, subject matter, medium, and consistency.

Often, the word style is used interchangeably with voice. So it’s worth mentioning both of these facts: style is one of the most significant aspects of your voice, and your voice is much more than your style, as you will see. Your artistic style is the look and feel of your work. It includes things like how neat and precise your work is or how loose and messy it is. It includes whether you make work that is representational or abstract, the marks you make in your work, and how those marks are repeated.

Here are some examples of things that make up your style. Let’s call them the “elements of style”:

  • Line. How do you create lines in your work? Are they delicate and thin or thick and rough? Are they prominent or obscured?
  • Shape. What shapes do you use consistently in your work? How do you use shape to define your content? Are the shapes in your work geometric or curved? Are the edges soft or hard? Are your shapes flat and one-dimensional or do they have depth and dimension? Are they clean or purposefully messy? Do you render shapes that represent real things or do you use abstract or nonrepresentational shapes?
  • Layering. Is your work layered? To what extent do you use layers to give the perception of depth and dimension? Or, conversely, is your work intentionally flat and graphic?
  • Color. What is your typical color palette? Is it warm or cool? What colors are you drawn to? What mood do your color choices give your work? Are you a color minimalist or a color maximalist? Do you play with color values?
  • Texture. Does your work have texture? How do you create texture with your medium? Or is your work intentionally without texture?
  • Composition. How do you normally compose your work? Do you consistently use a certain format of canvas, paper, or three-dimensional structure? How do you communicate visual balance? How do you use negative and positive space to impact the overall composition?
  • Rhythm and movement. How do you convey rhythm and movement in your work? Do you use repetition or alternation of strokes, marks, and imagery, or the gradation of color? Do you create tension by creating opposing directions or with the use of both warm and cool colors? Or, alternatively, is your work purposefully still?
  • Pattern and repeating imagery. What repeating patterns or repeating imagery do you portray in your work, either within a piece or across pieces?

While most of these elements of style are going to be repeated throughout all of your work, it’s also true that you may, like many artists, have more than one style. Some artists make both representational and abstract work. Others make some work that is flat and graphic in style and also work that is more layered and intricate. Having one style is not important. What is important is that you use the elements of style consistently within each of your artistic styles. Much more about that in a bit!

Skill is an essential element of artistic voice. With greater skill, you’ll create richer and more visually complex work, and you’ll have a much easier time communicating your ideas or emotions through visual imagery.

Sometimes when we bat around the term “skill,” even the most experienced artists will cringe. And that’s because for hundreds of years in the art world, until the late nineteenth century, what it meant to be a skilled artist was wrapped up in something very particular: your ability to render something realistically, typically from life. Embedded in that notion of skill were years and years of painstaking practice and academic precision. That old notion is still woven into the fabric of our idea about what it means to have “skill,” but it’s extremely antiquated.

Thanks to great minds like Georgia O’Keeffe, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Sol LeWitt, Romare Bearden, and Vincent van Gogh, by the mid-twentieth century the tradition of a singular definition for artistic “skill” was broken. While most of the artists I mentioned were classically trained, they, along with thousands of others, created works that broke away from the traditional mold of precise representational painting and drawing, and developed now-established genres like impressionism, abstraction, and three-dimensional conceptual works. Each of them forged the way for new styles that broadened our definition of what it means to be a skilled artist. Our growing appreciation of outsider art (art made by untrained artists who live outside mainstream culture) is only a further confirmation of a new definition for artistic skill.

Skill can take many forms, and, according to, “skill” means “the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well.” I’ll repeat what I think is the most important part of that definition: to do something well. Doing something “well” means that you have the technical abilities to execute your ideas in whatever media you use. It also means that you can execute with consistency, not just once, but over and over, because you’ve practiced . . . a lot. If you are self-taught, you can be just as skilled at making art as someone who has had years and years of schooling. Your skill is simply in what you do


On Sale
Aug 6, 2019
Chronicle Books

Lisa Congdon

About the Author

Lisa Congdon lives in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of several books, including A Glorious Freedom and Whatever You Are, Be a Good One.

Learn more about this author