A style for an illustrator is like a voice for a singer. Ideally, you want your illustration style to be unique, commercial and recognisable. Nurturing one’s style is an illustrator’s life’s work. For some, finding their own style comes easily while others are forever searching for “the one”.
I am definitely the second type.
There are two approaches to finding style in the art colleges today.
One is to instil in students what a “good” (meaning popular, commercial) illustration style is. Then all students’ work is judged according to how close they get to a particular “look”. The big benefit of this approach is that most students will find themselves commissioned immediately after graduation. The drawbacks: oversaturation of illustrators working within a particular style, and, consequently, that style going out of fashion.
The second approach is to give the students a totally free reign — let them work without any restrictions or demands while they (hopefully) figure it out themselves. That was the attitude during my BA. When I was studying illustration at Central Saint Martins, a style was a “dirty” word – according to my tutor. I think he equeled a style to becoming a one-trick pony, repetitively manufacturing one similar image after another. The benefit of this approach is that the individual gets to explore different things in their own time and they get to figure it out for themselves. The drawbacks: lack of focus and a portfolio not suitable for commercial work.
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 10 considerations I had to take into account when deciding on my personal style as an illustrator.
1. Know thyself. (And know your market).
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 goal. 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. Plus they are being mean 😃.
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 meticulous task.
3. Easy does it.
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.
4. Be practical.
Too often, when thriving for a specific illustration style, we dream about fame, beauty and artistic mastery associated with that particular look. We think like artists, not like business people. If you were to lay tiles in a bathroom, would you choose the most complicated longest way to do it or the easiest way? I think you would do the latter. So why would you choose the least practical way of creating artwork for commercial commission and make your life hell? 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.
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.
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, 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. This is not always the answer to your problems, but do go to a few classes if it expands your outlook as an artist.
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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