Chuck Close: creating your unique signature style

Chuck Close was born with a brain defect. He had prosopagnosia – face blindness. Which means he could not recognize and remember faces. And so he started paying closer attention to details… so he could remember someone through their eyebrows or elongated nose. And maybe that’s why, at the age of 5, he decided he would become a painter.

Close got into the art school at Yale. And studied pop art and minimalism and various other art forms. As was trendy during that time, he got swept away by abstract art. Creating things that could not be captured through a camera lens.

At the age of 27, when he could not make a lot of money with his art, Close became an art teacher in New York. But he was constantly frustrated. His art never rose above average. There was nothing unique about his paintings. Close struggled to create his signature style.

Close experimented with a lot of different styles. And one day, something clicked. He took a polaroid picture of a face. And started drawing it on a huge 9 foot canvas. Because Close didn’t see faces like other people saw them – his clarity in drawing them was very sharp. He got all the aberrations and micro expressions insanely accurately. Even when the face was blown up, amplified and expanded on a 9 foot canvas, the precision was insanely accurate.

This zag to hyper-realistic style of painting finally got him noticed. Close became a leading figure for the whole new school of photorealistic art – where the details are intensely sharp and accurate.

Hug your handicap

Chuck Close created his own unique signature style when he leaned into his weakness. 

Most people recommend that you should hide your weaknesses. Or at least improve on them so they are no longer your weaknesses. But uniqueness comes from leaning into perceived weakness.

Everyone’s good in the same ways. Every painter understands form and colours. Everyone knows how to use the paintbrush in the same way. But weaknesses are unique. They set you apart from the crowd.

Weakness is uniqueness. And uniqueness can be strength.

In 1172, a bell tower was being built for a cathedral. But unfortunately, the tower began to sink during the construction of the second floor of the tower – because the foundation was built on unstable subsoil. 

And because of that faulty foundation, millions of people have travelled a long way to go and see the tilted tower. The leaning tower of Pisa is famous because it has a flaw in it.

You can be the best. Or you can be unique. And frankly, being unique is easier than being the best.

Beethoven the deaf musician

Ludwig van Beethoven. Arguably he is one of the best musicians the world has seen. And yet, he was deaf for most of his life. How can a deaf person create the most sublime of music?

Before deafness, Beethoven’s music was really nice and balanced. He was naturally talented.

When he started going deaf, Beethoven was frustrated beyond imagination. He would hold a pencil in his mouth and try to play the piano – to feel the vibrations. He would hide in the countryside so no one would know he is going deaf. The music he created during this time is different: because it lacks higher notes. As Beethoven could not hear higher frequency as well, he didn’t use it much.

But after he went deaf and accepted his deafness, his music became sublime. The higher notes came back in his work. And there was a fun tension in the tunes. 

Because he was not attached to the physical sound, his imagination created much better music. His later works are mathematically perfect. 

The first step of creating your weakness into uniqueness is accepting it. What’s the second step?

Schwarzenegger’s signature phrases

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was trying to become an actor, a lot of people recommended him to lose his accent. And change his last name. But his accent has made him more memorable. How else do simple phrases like “Get to the chopper” and “I’ll be back” become catchphrases?

Here is the funny thing: Schwarzenegger heeded the advice given to him. And actually worked 5 hours a day to get rid of his accent. In fact, he can speak without an accent if he wants. But he decided to not follow through. He decided to do the opposite. And amplify his weakness.

And that’s what has made all the difference in making him more famous than other action heroes! 

Chuck Close’s second handicap

In 1988, Chuck Close suffered a seizure which left him paralyzed under his neck. He could not paint anymore! 

He went into a eerily calm depression. And he didn’t come out of it until his wife pushed him to paint again. But how was he to paint? Close held a paintbrush with his teeth and painted! He came out of his funk and started imagining what sort of miniature paintings he could make!

Eventually, he gained some movement in his upper arm. And strapped a paintbrush to his wrists and started painting! It was hard and he could not hold the brush for more than a few seconds. But it was happiness.

Of course there was no way Close could paint headshots again. Or was there?

Because Close saw faces not as faces but as parts, he realized he could paint a lot of dots to create a face! He started making two inch paintings. And asked his assistants to fix the jigsaw on the wall. 

And thats how, Chuck Close painted abstract headshots and created his own unique signature style again!

Action Summary:

  • Lean into your weakness because it can help you create your unique style.
  • First step is to accept your weakness. Second step is to amplify it. 
Self portrait paintings of Chuck Close: before and after his seizure