A style for an illustrator is like a voice for a singer. Ideally, you want your illustration style to be unique and commercial. Nurturing one’s style is an illustrator’s life’s work. A consistent style is what makes an illustrator stand out and takes her career to the next level. So how do you go about developing that crystal clear style?
First of all, if you are anything like me and can’t decide on just one thing, the good news is that you can have more than one style. For instance, I have two different styles which are used for different illustration niches – one for licensing and one for children’s book art. So you don’t have to have just one style and once you find your style don’t feel like you shouldn’t ever change it. It’s ok to develop your style and even change it complete as time passes.
How to develop your own illustration style?
Reaching that golden balance of consistent yet lively work is the goal here. It took me years of studying, freelancing, getting a book published, and constantly creating artwork daily to start seeing certain glimpses of a recognisable style. The truth is, I am very excited to try new ways of creating artwork and settling on just one thing is rather difficult for me. I struggled with this for many years until eventually I realized that working in a variety of ways is not a hindrance for an illustrator, and can even be a blessing.
As with anything in illustration (and life), there is never a definitive how-to guide to developing a strong style. Here are my own five considerations I had to take into account when deciding on my personal style as an illustrator.
1. Know thyself (and know your market).
First of all, collect a Pinterest board of style that you personally love. Also do a research on trends in your chosen niche. For instance, you can research what is popular in picture books, or printed onto products, or editorial illustration. You don’t need to copy these styles but it’s a good idea to start collecting what you like, so that you develop your own taste.
A style is a deeply personal thing. It is easy to get swayed by other people’s opinions, by a tutor at the art college or by the next big trend. The only person, however, who can decide what your style should be is YOU. It’s like having an inner compass which is always pointing to your unique voice — you can explore different directions as long as you are always pointing towards your inner truth. And the opinions that should matter to you (if any) are the opinions of your client and target audience. So even if your friend, or your partner, or your mother is not keen on your work, it is absolutely irrelevant.
2. Experiment responsibly.
At an art college, experimentation is often presented as an answer to everything. And don’t get me wrong, experimenting is good, especially in the early stages of your illustration career. It is possible to learn a lot just by looking at other people’s work and by replicating their style. At some point, however, experimentation turns into procrastination, when artists keep trying new things because they lack the confidence to tackle their own style. You certainly don’t need to try every material available on the planet to find what you like. The rule of thumb is that experimentation should feel like a play to be useful. It should never feel like a laborious task.
If you are a complete beginner, then copying other artist’s styles can be useful for educational purposes. The best way to do this is to find an image that you like and then draw your own image in the same style using the same materials. This way, you are learning the artist’s technique but not copying their art.
You may also try combining style elements from different artists together which will result in a new style that’s unique to you.
An art teacher once said to me: “A good design doesn’t need to take a long time”. This simple phrase stayed with me, because, being a high achiever, I always believed that spending ages on something will reap great results. As if to prove that what you created is any good, you need to suffer a great deal in the process. In fact, that is not always right. Simplicity works better in most cases. When you trust yourself, creating something great does not take long. It also doesn’t mean that you are cheating, or that you should charge less money for it, just because creating something that comes easily to you. On the contrary, it means that you are confident and have a good eye and feel for your design, so the marks you make are (generally) inspired and right.
For example, you may decide to use simple line drawings as your style, or laborious and detailed painting techniques. Remember that both of these styles are valid and appropriate for different client’s projects. Don’t feel like you have to learn all the complicated digital software in order to become professional, your style may be analogue and hand drawn and still find its customer.
4. Be practical.
Too often, when thriving for a specific illustration style, we can get carried away. We think that the more complex the style is, the more value it has. That’s not true. It’s useful to approach your style with a business mind. The way you create your art needs to be practical and easy enough for you to be able to replicate the process over and over again if you want to have a sustainable illustration practice.
For example, I now use templates and reuse my older drawings as much as possible tocreate new images.
5. Take care of your emotional and mental health.
This is a big one and very often overlooked parameter. Having a “high maintenance” style (very complicated, hard to make changes, “fussy” expensive materials etc) puts pressure on the illustrator, resulting in all sort of emotional and mental problems. From fear of not being able to deliver the same style that the client asked, to the thoughts of watercolours not behaving correctly on certain papers, choosing a difficult to maintain style will add stress to your life. So stick to your strengths. If you are a traditional watercolourist, you don’t have to learn all the latest computer software. If you like to work digitally, that doesn’t mean that you need to try out every single traditional media available.
Self promotion for illustrators
Very often people don’t get anywhere in their illustration career mostly due to lack of knowledge about self promotion. But instead of putting efforts into getting their work out there and finding projects suitable for their style, they start thinking that it’s their style that is to blame. So watercolour masters start contemplating learning vector graphics from scratch. While people who are great on computer consider re-training as classical painters. I hear these stories all the time, when a person who has a good style but failed to get themselves out there starts thinking they should learn something new like animation software because it’s more popular.
To find a suitable niche for your style, do some research and see where else you have seen similar styles before.
To sum up, choose a style based on what you have always been pretty good at and go with it for long enough. Don’t be afraid of being repetitive or doing the same thing over and over again.
Use a process that you can reliably replicate over and over again.
Do work in a way that is exciting to you and enjoy it.
How are you getting on with your style?
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