2 – I Like Your Style

Intro

Welcome back! This is the second iteration of my blog, in which I discuss my experiences as illustrator, things which I feel should be at least somewhat relatable to other creative practitioners. It’d be nice to organically grow an audience through these posts, and generate some important discussion.

What is Style?

Every illustrator, graphic designer, fine artist, glassmaker, writer, and even programmer… has their own style. I would classify “style” as one’s personal approach to their practice, built from their values, personality, preferred tools/methods and influences.

Style is a particularly prominent part of an illustrator’s skillset. We are visual thinkers, with a visual output. What sets apart one illustrator from another tends to be the appearance of their work, and while this may not be strictly the case, it certainly appears that way.

Anyone who isn’t practicing some kind of design or visual art-related subject will likely take your work at face value. “I like your style” is a very common term.

Therefore, it can be seen as an important task to figure out a “style” within your own practice, so that you can feel confident in yourself.

My Experience

When I started out in Illustration I really had no idea what I wanted to do or how to do it. Everyone else seemed to be ahead of me already! But I was simply new, and after a few projects I started to figure out what my style could be.

In my second year of university I hit the ground running. We had a brief to create a t-shirt design based on a news story. I hated the news so I thought back to the Florida Man phenomenon, and felt excited at the idea of doing something unique and comical.

That project was the first one I was proud of, but the following project was even better. I was tasked with creating an artbook themed around the “City”, eventually settling on Manchester’s Northern Quarter – specifically, the cafes and restaurants.

During the research stage I drew the bar in a Wetherspoons, and I realised that I LOVED observational drawing. It was like I unlocked a part of myself I didn’t know existed. It looked good, it felt good. I thought that I could actually do more of this. And I carried on doing it.

As time went on I kept on trying new, different things. Editorials, comics, concept art, beer cans, zines, and so on… though nothing I did at university since that art book ever felt the same.

At some point I transitioned to digital artwork for the ease of the process, as well as a greater potential for improvement than with things like fineliners and promarkers. I played around with True Grit Texture Supply, incorporating halftone patterns and colours not too different from 60s comics. But I felt restricted with it, so I moved on to try and learn how to use my own colours and textures. I even tried playing with lighting.

As you experiment with different tools, different media, and naturally over time through drawing and learning mistakes, you get a good idea of what does and doesn’t work for you. And when you look back on your previous work you’ll start to notice an improvement.

Yet, after all of that, I still find myself questioning “style”.

My Struggle

I think that when you become a freelancer, and you have to define yourself to the world, it can be daunting. All of a sudden it’s like you need to know what you are and stick with it. Like you can’t risk breaking away from your way of doing things, else you’ll confuse your audience and art directors with a jumbled mess of work that lacks confidence.

(If it isn’t already obvious, this is mostly bullsh*t. I’m in a pretty good frame of mind at the moment, so I can see the flaws in an argument like this.)

I’ve mentally been in and out of the freelancing game in the year since I finished university, partially due to part-time jobs but also because I lacked confidence in my own abilities. After almost giving up because a huge commission fell through, I’ve been trying to build myself back up. I aim to be more organised and take things at my own pace, not rushing to the finish line where I know exactly who I am and what I do and make millions from all the clients running to my door and I live in a nice house with a dog and his name is Bingo.

Nonono. It’s better to take your time than to overwhelm yourself with impossible expectations. I’ve learned that the hard way.

Defining my own style

I loved observational drawing since that artbook project. I began filling sketchbooks with lineart of people and places. I tried to find ways to throw it into everything I did. But I was always too literal about it!

The dictionary defines observation as:

  • the action or process of closely observing or monitoring something or someone.
  • a statement based on something one has seen, heard, or noticed.

I’d followed the former definition. Watching things closely, and drawing them. But things don’t always have one definition, and it was only when I tried comics recently that I realised there could be more to it. While visually I didn’t like this more cartoon-ish approach, I liked the idea that my love for observation didn’t just have to be drawing what’s in front of me. It can also be a thought process that informs what I create.

My point is that style isn’t just how your art looks, it’s also the ideas behind it, the thought process, the experiences and research that go into informing the appearance. Furthermore, experimenting with not just new tools (like brushes and oil pastels), but also applications (such as comics, beer cans, murals) have the power to completely change your own perception of your work. And that’s f*cking amazing.

Conclusion

A quick conclusion. Style is a term tossed around a lot, particularly when you’re in university or a graduate and more self-conscious about your output. I think it’s important to have a grasp on what it is that you offer as a freelancer – after all, you’re a business now.

But don’t sweat it if you don’t quite know yet! I bet I’ll still be asking myself in 5 years, and that’s fine.

We live in a world full of information and that involves seeing illustrators a decade ahead of you who’ve worked with Nike and Google bashing out mind-blowing artwork. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be you one day. Really, the best advice I can offer is to keep on doing your thing, be playful and try new things. Eventually you’re bound to hit gold.

As for me, I bought a good-as-new Art Creation landscape sketchbook yesterday, and I’m dying to go out and get some sketches of the city in there!

Recommended Reading

A bit from Ben Tallon on his own style and how he found success doing his own thing. He also went to my uni, albeit years before me, but I have a lot of respect for him:

Ben Tallon on graphic activism, avoiding trends and embracing creativity across the board

Some motivation for doing your own thing, and how it might attract work:

How personal projects can help you attract new work

On the other hand, do you feel like you’ve hit a wall? Then maybe this article might help remotivate you:

Three exercises to help beat creative block

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