Creative Insights: Lesley Riley

The Nose Knows: How to Find Your Artistic Voice

You love to create, this I know. You enjoy making things, handling the paint, the paper, the fabric. Turning nothings into somethings. But in spite of this love—this joy in making—you feel something is lacking in what you do. I hear it often, “I want to find my voice, my style.”

Here’s what I have come to realize. Your voice is right under your nose. One voice, literally, and the other—the one you seek—figuratively. What you are looking for is not out there, it is inside of you. It is something you have carried with you for a long, long time. It is something that is so simple that you have most likely overlooked it, even dismissed it.

I will tell you the story of how I found my voice. I was looking for it for many, many years—decades, really. I, too, thought it was out there. The harder I looked without finding, the more I thought I just wasn’t cut out to be an artist. It became such a mystery to me that I became determined to solve it.

So here’s what I did. I took a very analytical, left-brained approach. I interviewed myself using this one key question, “What is it about other people’s art that excites me, that creates a longing in me?”  I made my list:

a sense of age
makes me feel good/happy

And you know what? All of those answers had been present in my life from an early age. I began collecting quotes and old photos as a teenager. I made my first quilt at 19. Those three main elements of my present work had been right under my nose for decades. Without that interview I may have never made the connection and brought them together to create work that not only made my heart sing, but gave me the voice I had been searching for.


Work that sings to us may be a good indication of where to look, although our positive reaction may simply be due to the fact that the artist has found something so true and real we mistake it for our own.

Ian Robert

Each of us consciously or unconsciously chooses to have visual symbols—images and objects—in our environments. We are all drawn to certain colors, shapes, forms, patterns, and textures in our everyday lives or may consciously place them around us in decorating our homes or choosing outfits to wear. We also keep pictures, prints, photographs, cards and objects, images and items that have importance to us, remind us of a person, memory or event, or simply give us pleasure. Here are a couple exercises we do in my creativity class that help an artist mine these objects and visual clues to hone in on her own voice.


Exercise #1

Set aside at least 30 minutes to do this exercise in a quiet, uninterrupted setting.

Gather together 12-20 photos of artists’ work that speaks to you. Try to vary them by style, era and artist. Include at least three pieces of your own work that you feel is really successful.

Look carefully at each photo or artwork and make note of what it is about it that you like, what speaks to you. Be specific. The more details you can note, the more productive and revealing the exercise will be.  For example, don’t just say, “I like the color.” Ask, “What is it about the color, is it a pure hue, muted, deep, shadowed?” Try to spend at least three minutes on each image.

What are the most successful parts?

Do all of your favorites relate to each other in any way?

Do they have something in common, are there recurrent themes?

What do you like in what you see?

What do you like about your own work?

What do you dislike?


Finding your own work is a process of distilling from each (other artists, techniques and classes) those traces that ring true to your own spirit.

Bayles & Orland


Exercise #2

Take a walk around your home. What colors do you surround yourself with? What patterns do you see? Texture or none? What colors are in your closet? Is your jewelry quiet and understated or bold and colorful? What do you collect? Do you love vintage or new, bright or dusky? What’s hidden in that knickknack box or drawer? Take notes on what you observe. These are the visual clues to what makes you you.


If we follow the individual wisdom and uniqueness in each of us, we will find expression and creativity beyond our widest dreams.

Lane Arye

And here’s the golden nugget. You cannot find your voice without doing the work. It does not come overnight or in a burst of inspiration. It comes from doing the work of creating. Over and over and over. Everything comes from the work: your voice, your inspiration, your success and your happiness. If you are doing the work, then the answers really are right under your nose. So get off this computer and get to work!

You can’t imagine the work, you can only generate ideas when you put pencil to paper, brush to canvas – when you actually do something physical.

Twyla Tharp


Lesley Riley is an internationally known artist, teacher and author with a passion for spreading the magic of art. Though her company, Artist Success, Lesley provides resources, coaching and mentoring to artists, enabling them to achieve their vision of success. For more information and resources, visit


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One Response to Creative Insights: Lesley Riley

  1. rasz says:

    Thank you Leslie for your great advice. I have been all over the place with my creativity and continually give up because I am not finding what I feel is “my voice”. Your article really spoke to me and makes perfect sense.