Visual Art is a realm where everyone can express their own creative identity through design.
Those of us who make items like jewelry, adornments, sculpture and decorative or functional objects are working in the realm of the visual arts. Being a maker of products such as jewelry requires being a designer as well as a maker.
Designing is something we all do.
Perhaps not everyone accepts that they are a designer. But if you think about it, we use design every day in a variety of ways.
We design our daily plan: what time to get up, what attire to wear, what accessories we need to take with us – an umbrella and overcoat or a hat and sunblock. We design a calendar with a schedule of the activities and obligations we intend to participate in and we design a path and a time table to get to and fro. If we cook for ourselves, we design a meal plan and a shopping list. If we eat in restaurants, we design our meal by deciding what we will order or select from a buffet. In this context of our everyday life, designing is all about planning, preparations and following through.
Design in visual art is pretty much the same context: planning, preparations and follow-through. A quote I always remember from my mentor, Alan Revere, one of the most celebrated and prolific jewelry designers of the current era, is about design as a process. Alan said,
In design, it all comes down to making decisions. Design is a process of expansion and contraction; opening up to a wide expanse of possibilities and narrowing down to the most promising.
I have found this to be equally true in my own studio practice as well as in my work with students and clients to help them develop into skilled designers.
What is design exactly?
Design is first and foremost an activity; the creative interaction with ideas, concepts, materials and techniques. It is an amalgamation of any and all of the above that brings forth creative expression in a tangible form. It does not really matter whether the material is pigment and canvas or fabric, metal, wood, stone, clay or plastic. And it does not really matter whether it is two dimensional or three dimensional. Design is working with something in a transformative way; whether it is an idea, a material, or even just a way of thinking.
Identity is what is revealed in design.
One question that comes up in being a creator is whether we are following someone else’s design, creating our own, or to what extent we are doing both. In the early stages of our development, we more than likely use existing designs as stepping stones to build up our technical and material skills.
Much of the instruction available in books, workshops and educational programs relies on using existing designs as a device to help practitioners develop. By following established designs, emerging artists are trained to the point they are capable of creating their own design identity. This is true in every skilled pursuit; we do what others have done until we are skilled enough to forge ahead on our own and create our own designs.
In the submissions for the 2018 Halstead Grant, there were several entries with very similar work. Some were also similar to work already available in the marketplace. These multiple similarities reflect that there might be something compelling about the types of designs being made. But many new jewelry artists struggle to establish originality or a strong sense of personal identity. This makes it hard to distinguish them in a memorable way from one another, or from existing work that is already established. One of the goals of the grant program and feedback process is to guide new artists in this identity development.
This pairing of originality and identity is what we strive for in our creative expression. I often tell the students in my design retreats that our objective is to get our personality into the metal. However we accomplish that, whether by tool, technique, design or execution, we need to make our work into an identifiable extension of our unique persona.
Once we start to find our own way to work with design, we begin to develop our individual aesthetic. As we establish our design voice and lay an aesthetic foundation, we are poised to build upwards and continue to define and refine our creative expression in a recognizable way.
Jenny Reeves is a great example of design identity.
“The importance of developing a unique aesthetic was instilled early and I still use the exercises Alan Revere taught in his design class. When developing new work I use shape studies and pics from everyday life – a crack in the sidewalk or the lines of graffiti on a trash can – so I know I’m creating from a realm of ideas that don’t already exist as jewelry.”
Once Jenny finds a new idea to work with, she develops a series of pieces with extensions of the same features. This can be through her technique, material, color, shape, form, or all of these. This leads her to the evolution of design content that is cohesive and recognizable. When you look at her work, right away you can identify that it is hers because of her individual aesthetic and her sense of design.
Luana Coonen is another very unique and talented designer and goldsmith.
She is also a Revere faculty colleague of mine. Luana expresses her deep and abiding love of nature’s tiniest wonders through her artwork. She finds ways within her work as a jeweler to amplify the beauty of simple natural objects and to bring attention to our emotions. This is reinforced by her passion to use found objects and renewable materials. Luana has created a unique niche in the jewelry marketplace that really stands out because of the materials she chooses and the way she uses them to bring her personality forward in a way that is instantly identifiable.
I asked Luana to share some of her insight about design:
“As business owners, when it comes to rising above competition, we have three areas where we can choose to excel: competitive pricing, superior customer service, or innovative product/design. As jewelry designers, the third category best suits our marketplace and is an area where we can shine. Create the piece which will stand apart from the others, and you won’t have to compete for the cheapest price or best return policy. You simply will gain strength from being the most innovative of the bunch.”
“Make what you truly want to make, not what is currently selling. If you follow trends, you will lose your voice, and begin a life-long battle to keep up with what is trending next, always putting aside the pieces you dream of creating. If you start making those pieces now, even if they seem more risky, you will slowly grow a name for yourself and your product, creating a demand for jewelry the clients would have never known existed.”
Cohesive content is key to establishing an identity through design.
Both Jenny and Luana make work that has very evident cohesive content. Cohesion is the current that flows through a body of work to convey the maker’s identity and personality and to attract and compel the viewer.
Cohesion does not imply that we have to make an extensive body of work. What cohesion requires is to make extensive use of an idea, shape, or concept. We can do this with something as simple and fundamental as a shape, like a circle, square, or triangle. On their own, something as generic as these shapes seems too simple to make much of a personal statement. But the potential is there if we dig deep enough under the surface.
Imagine the cohesive potential of these simple shapes is like valuable ore: it only reveals itself with the investment of a lot of labor. We have to move a lot of material to get to the ore. Once we get to it, we have to do further work to refine it, extract the valuable part and discard that which is not useful.
Think of Leonardo Da Vinci or Pablo Picasso. They each had hundreds of studies and drawings of small details and features. They examined and drew things over and over to figure out how things worked and understand how to communicate them. That investment in time and detail led to the successful execution of the larger work they created. It became a very important part of who they were and how they expressed themselves.
For us it works the same way. We need to interact with something until we begin to understand it and realize the nature of it. In doing this, we become aware of the potential even the simplest things present and are enabled to do much more with it.
Digging deep into design potential.
A simple shape can be used in endless ways. We can combine it in various sizes and proportions or sub-divide it into portions and components. It can be built up in layers, turned upside down, flipped inside out, reversed, or mirrored. We can add texture, color and dimension. We should try every imaginable thing that comes to mind to see what else the shape offers. By doing this type of exploration, and working with a shape in a dedicated process, we find our own way of using it. Thus, we can make our use recognizable through identifiable features and attributes.
We can do the same thing with any aspect of design: color, surface, texture, dimension, line, form, movement, etc. It is by working diligently with various aspects that we start to build our design vocabulary and find our unique voice.
One of my design students in a recent workshop summed it up very succinctly. She said,
If I am getting this right, what it takes to find your own design identity is working with something long enough and deep enough to make your own expression with it and give it your own authenticity.
Yes, it is exactly like that! Even if you are using a simple shape like a circle or square. Making an exhaustive investigation of what you can do with the shape is how you find the path that leads you to your own sense of design and expression.
Process is the path to progress.
Like Alan Revere says, understanding design as a process is doing just that; interacting with and exploring something long enough and far enough to make progress. If we stick with an idea and investigate what can be done with it, we will discover valuable information. The more we pursue something with dedicated intent and focus, it is more likely we will get somewhere.
The process of design is not about abandoning things prematurely or flitting from one thing to another. It involves digging deep below the surface. Rather than always wanting to start something new, I suggest that previous ideas often have more value that is still waiting to be extracted. Investing more time and energy to dig a little further is how we get ideas to pay off.
The design process is like surveying and paving our own way forward. It might take dozens of scribbles and sketches to come up with something viable; but if we stick with an idea faithfully enough, it will become familiar and recognizable. From there, it might take a handful of models and iterations to get to an essence that establishes a design concept we can build on. Just as a building needs a solid foundation to be structurally viable, the design process provides a solid and stable foundation for an idea to build upon further.
Many makers are better at dabbling than at serious making. They often flit from one thing to another after barely scratching the surface of each material, technique, or idea; and the work generally reflects this. Scratching the surface of things is just the beginning. The simple truth is it takes a lot of work digging beneath the surface to get down to the pay dirt.
Originality is finding a way to express yourself with your own voice.
To understand originality, we can start by asking what is the origin of design? We all have equal access to the same elements of design. All of us have an identical palette of basic shapes and colors. We have the same ability to incorporate or limit movement. We can each decide how to use design concepts such as contrast, contradiction, compatibility, or resonance in the composition of our designs.
If we have equal access to the same design principles, elements, and features, how does a visual artist put their identity into their work? How do you take something that already exists and make it individual? My experiential understanding, in accordance with what I teach in design retreats, is that it takes full immersion. We need to dive into the deep end of the pool rather than just sticking a tentative toe in the water.
The way we get our own identity into things in a recognizable way is to work in-depth with whatever we decide to examine. In-depth means taking an idea and carrying it forward with a vast exploration. The most effective way to do this is to work in groups and series; we need to make enough of something that it starts to have identifiable features we can make use of. This will help us create a current of cohesion.
So how do we make work that is truly our own? After all, the things we see influence and affect us all. As many people say quite often, “Everything under the sun has already been done!” Well, yes that is partly true. But it is still up to you to decide how you will choose to express yourself. You can find something new, something different, or at least something of your own in how you design.
Alan Revere’s thoughts on innovators and imitators:
“The idea is that we need both in our culture. Somebody had to figure out the shape of the first fork and then everyone else agreed to imitate it. That works well because if everyone made their own fork, they would be very random and not uniform. Some would be good for cake and others would be good for meat. And by standardizing the size, now all forks fit into the slots in our drawers and dishwashers.
But we dearly need innovators to adapt and survive. We needed the first printing press. We needed the first radio transmission. And we needed the first suspension bridge. These innovations are just crucial to our lives as the imitations that surround us.
In our field, one can choose which end of the spectrum to land on. Some people refuse to look at others’ work because they don’t want to be contaminated in their creative process. Others scour the marketplace and devour the work of others as a basis for their own explorations.
Personally, I am more interested in innovative jewelry than imitation jewelry. Todd Reed was a huge innovator when he began working with the rough and ugly diamonds that nobody in fine jewelry would consider. He built a name and signature look and there are now hundreds of imitators.
The sad story is that there appear to be fewer innovators and far more imitators these days. It is almost as if the trend is to look bland and like everyone else, rather than make something that has its own character and stands out.”
Influence and Inspiration are all around us.
We often see other work that affects us and likely influences our own design direction. That is a natural part of being an observant being. But, the real question we should ponder is how we can allow ourselves to be influenced without being a copycat. Anyone can copy; but anyone who works a little harder can create something new.
Being a creator rather than a copier starts by being observant and looking into things in a perceptive way. It means paying closer attention. When you observe something that compels you, don’t just say “I like this”. You have to go deeper. Look closely at the features and attributes; endeavor to understand exactly why you like it.
What is it that you find compelling? Look deeply enough to uncover the essence of what attracts you. Then identify the characteristics by reflecting on why it compels you. Determining what attracts you, and why, opens the awareness of cause and effect. This is the key to making these compelling aspects accessible in a way you can call your own.
If you can determine what is responsible for provoking that feeling you experience, you can distill that feature or attribute down to an essence. Once you know the essence, it is yours to apply in your own way. Then you can bring those compelling attributes into your work and infuse it with your own essence that attracts and compels others.
This is the true secret of originality: getting your own unique identity into your creative expression. Invest your designs with your own personality and you’ll establish a foundation to keep building upon. With time and intent, that foundation will become your unique design aesthetic. Once you see the beginnings of that, you will propel forward. Once you start, the possibilities are truly limitless!
Michael David Sturlin is a renowned studio jewelry artist, goldsmith, writer, educator, and industry consultant. With over 40 years in the metalsmithing and jewelry industry, Michael has learned the ins and outs of not only jewelry making, but marketing your business and setting it up for success. He taught the Marketing Designer Jewelry class at Revere Academy for 10 years and hosts retreats at his Scottsdale studio each year. He recently served as the 2018 Halstead Grant guest judge.