When I first started getting serious about illustration, there was all this talk of style and how your style is what makes your work special and desirable.
It might even cause an art director to choose you over someone else for an illustration project. But I didn’t think I had a style and I didn’t know how to get one. I couldn’t see anything special about my work that would make it distinguishable from anyone else’s.
Style can feel like a mysterious, elusive concept that artists are chasing without really understanding what it is. We often confuse style with our processor choice of medium.
But, style isn’t about whether you draw with pencils or ink, or paint with watercolours or oils, on paper or wooden boards or even sidewalks.
Have you ever noticed that you can still identify the work of your favourite artists, even when they switch mediums? When people started to tell me they were able to spot my work even if my name wasn’t on it, I was shocked.
But self-perception is tricky. We don’t see ourselves the way others do, and that can be true for our art as well.
You can’t always see the forest for the trees.
So, it turned out, I had a style all along. Everyone does. It just wasn’t a style that I loved. I think that most artists who say they are looking for their style mean they are looking for a way of creating work that they feel connected to. We all want to create the work that we love — work that speaks to us.
Style is often called your “visual voice” and I think it’s a good analogy because, like your voice, style is unique to every single person. It develops over time with each piece of art you make.
It’s shaped by all of your experiences and influences in life—including your exposure to other voices—and it’s communicated through all of your artistic choices: colours, lines, textures, shapes, brushwork, lighting and mark-making.
Your style is defined; by the stories you share and can be what—or who—you choose to make of it. Style is shaped; by the details, you put in, and, maybe even more so, by the ones you leave out.
And much like your voice, your style can be trained and developed. There are steps you can take to hone your style and refine it so that it’s more in line with your taste.
You can intentionally develop your style into something that makes your heart sing — or you can leave it to develop naturally on its own and be one of those people who just sing loud in the shower (no judging!).
It wasn’t until I started taking steps to intentionally hone my style, that I started creating work that I actually liked and felt connected to.
I know you want me to just cut to the part where I tell you how to find your style. But, I can’t tell you how to find it. Style isn’t like a lost shoe—you can’t stop looking once you’ve discovered its whereabouts.
It’s constantly evolving and changing and will continue to do so for your entire life. There are no shortcuts—style grows slowly over time and you’ll have to make a lot of art along the way.
But what I will do is offer you practice to help you develop a style that speaks to you. I’m calling it a practice because it’s something you can and should do continuously throughout your creative career.
1. Explore Your Taste
Ira Glass says it all starts with taste. We get into this because we have good taste. So who do you love? We’ve all had the experience of discovering an artist whose work has such a special quality to it, and makes such an impact on us that we can’t stop thinking about it for days or weeks.
Make a list of the artists you are obsessed with—not just the ones you like, but the ones whose work keeps you up at night.
When I made my list, many of my favourite artists were contemporary, so I stalked them online to find out who their influences were also. It turns out many of them were influenced by the same master artists.
2. Determine Why You Love What You Love
Lots of people make a list of influences and stop there, but this is the really important part that will allow the clouds to part and the sun to shine down on you.
Put into words exactly what it is you love about their work. Is it the way they make their lines? Is it their shape language or colour choices? Transparency vs. opaques? Are you obsessed with the way they draw hands? Be specific. What are the things they are doing that make the art appealing to you?
It wasn’t until I did this that I realized all of my most favourite illustrators use lines and primarily transparent watercolours, yet for years I had been painting out the lines in my digital paintings. This was a lightbulb moment for me.
3. Identify Your Strengths
Make a list of your artistic strengths. Are you good with brushwork? Lighting? Interesting colours? Maybe lines are your forte? Write them down and then notice where your strengths overlap with things that appealed to you in the work of your favourite artists.
I have always felt that pencil work was one of my strengths, and many of my favourite artists were incorporating pencil lines into their work, so I realized I should use pencils and find a way to preserve my linework in my finished pieces.
4. Make Copies
Spend time studying and making master copies from an artistic influence on your list. Make sure to include the things you listed in step two. Use the same materials they are using and make the copies look as close to the original as you can.
5. Now Make Your Own
Make art of your own that is inspired by the master copies you’ve just done. Here is where you can be creative, and experimental, but be sure to still keep the things that originally appealed to you in the masterwork from step two.
It’s ok if you don’t like the results of this step, but here is where you figure out what you want to keep in your own work and what you want to let go of.
Go through this process each time you discover someone new. Find something else you can add to your own work. And If you return to this practice time and time again, you’ll keep constantly growing and building a style that evolves along with your artistic taste.