Recently I did a little illustration Q&A on Instagram, and a few of the questions were about style. I've done a number of talks in Uni's and Colleges over the years, and I've had a lot of students contacting me with questions, and the question I get asked the most has always been about style. How do you find your style? Well, although I hardly feel qualified to answer, I always want to do what I can to help, and you never know when your words might resonate with someone, so here are my two cents.
When you look at the illustration world it’s hard to avoid style. Its pervasive, the reason people get hired. When you’re starting out it can also be completely overwhelming. When I first began my Illustration BA I found myself asking the same question, much like a child wonders how on earth you turn from a kid to an adult, I wondered how you go from someone who hasn’t got a clue what they’re doing to a full fledged professional with an ever illusive ‘style’. Like, do you just happen upon it one day? Do you just pluck it from thin air?
My teachers all told me the same thing – forget about it and just learn how to draw. I didn’t understand for a long time how on earth that would help, and I felt the same way everyone does at the beginning of a long ass journey. Frustrated. But I had no choice, so I drew. I drew people in life drawing classes, I drew people reading in the library, I drew people selling fruit at markets, I drew fishermen mending nets on a boat, I drew people waiting for trains, I drew people making cakes.
We went all over to all kinds of museums. I drew old rusting farm equipment, I drew ancient weaponry and armour, I drew beautiful combs and hand mirrors, I drew keys, I drew shrunken heads, I drew the patterns from pots and tapestries, I drew typewriters and clocks, and I drew animal after animal. I filled endless sketchbooks with awful drawings of anything I could find, not caring what they looked like and not caring about style, until one day I realised the drawings weren’t so awful anymore.
As well as drawing I tried every method of creating I had the facility to. I’ve drawn in pens and pencils, I’ve tried every kind of paint & ink, I’ve screen printed, mono-printed, made etching plates, I’ve worked on paper and on canvas, I’ve learned how to create art digitally with a tablet and an iPad. Watercolour was the first that really resonated with me, where I felt in control of my marks, and the first thing I felt really able to use to bring the ideas in my head to reality. Later I expended into gouache, I learned how to scan my paintings in and clean them up in Photoshop, and now my work is made from a combination of paint and digital work.
And through all this I never particularly chose a style, after all those years of work and experimentation my style was the result of this very long and personal journey I had taken. My style is me. It’s the colors I love, the shapes I’m drawn to, the subject matter I am inspired by, and the techniques that I mixed together. It changes, it evolves, I am always trying to learn new things and get better at what I do. Still, I see myself shining out of every new piece of work because it’s all a result of my own very personal creative process.
There is a tendency in the creative world to assume that people are naturally talented; that somehow they burst forth from their mothers womb, paintbrush in hand, able to paint a beautiful sunset over the mountains from their own imaginations. This attitude totally dismisses the YEARS of hard work that all of us had to go through to get where we are today. Art is just like anything else, you learn how to do it by grafting. People who are extremely ‘talented’ at what they do are often just the most obsessed. They are the people who eat, sleep and breathe it. It’s the same in almost every career, not just illustration.
There is no shortcut to finding a style. Much like musicians have to learn their scales, illustrators too need to learn the fundamentals of our craft. If you try to pick a style and emulate it then you’ll be selling yourself short. Like a chef who learns how to make really good eggs and nothing else, you will be boxing yourself in to only ever making eggs for the rest of your life. You will also always be ten steps behind the person you’re trying to be.
I think sometimes style can look like a choice because a lot of illustrators work can come across quite similar at first glance. But to me I think this is less because people are actively copying each other, and more because we all live in the same world. Lots of us live in the same or similar cultures as well, so we are all bound to admire the same colours, and to be inspired by the same things. I love nature, animals and flowers, I love blue and pink, I love pattern, and I love detail. I can think of tons of other illustrators who would probably say the same things. I can think of tons of other people who would say the same thing and maybe that’s why they like my work.
Illustration is visual storytelling; it’s a way to reflect the world back at itself from your own unique perspective. Every time you put pen or paintbrush to paper to draw something you’re making your own set of choices about every line and stroke, you’re putting your own feelings and emotion into it all, and it all comes as a result of everything you’ve tried and everything you’ve learned. That’s why people will connect with it. That’s why they’ll love it. That's how they'll know its you.
So that's the long and the short of it, in my humble opinion. It’s a long, frustrating and amazing journey. Enjoy every minute.