Understanding an artist's style is key to understanding the history of the art world, but it can also be a very misleading practice. Just when you thought you had pinned down the notable styles of the most important artists in your art history class in high school or college. Think again.
Here's a new perspective on style: Consider the careers and work of some of the most important painters in the last century: Georgia O'Keeffe, Richard Deibenkorn, Willem De Kooning, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Maynard Dixon, Claude Monet, Alexander Calder, Piet Mondrian, and Robert Motherwell. There are many others, but these artists are great examples of individuals whose work evolved dramatically over time. In their minds, consistency was another word for creative stagnation. These artists are important because of their unceasing pursuit of a creative vision. They valued artistic freedom over commercial success.
Can you imagine if Vincent VanGoh painted sunflowers his whole life? Or if Claude Monet never got past his charicatures? Granted, in retrospect, these artists had common threads unifying most if not all of their artistic labors. But those threads of style were never contrived; nor were they planned. They were never based on a specific motif or brush stroke. Their style was always a natural consequence of their artistic journey, of being true to themselves and living in the moment.
Like the tracks of a coyote zigzagging around patches of sage and juniper. Style should never be the trail that you follow, but the tracks you leave behind.
The images below show how three of the greatest painters explored the coninuum of representation. On the left are representational paintings, on the right are abstract paintings, in the middle are pieces that cross between the two ends of the continuum. In some cases the abstract works are non-objective, meaning no subject other than color, line, shape, etc.
3 paintings by Georgia O'keeffe
3 paintings by Richard Diebenkorn
3 paintings by Mark Rothko