Forget “Style”

“Finding my style” is one of the most commonly discussed topics among illustrators. Entire semesters, seminars, twitter chats, and blog posts are devoted to “style”.

And yet, of all the words in the lexicon of the art world, “style” is the one I absolutely hate the most.

HONEY, CAN YOU PICK UP A STYLE ON YOUR WAY HOME?

I won’t bore you with four hundred paragraphs describing all the times, over the years, I’ve been asked about “style”; as if it’s something you can pick up at a store. Hm, what style should I get today? Ooh! “Paint Unnaturally Like Someone Else” is on sale! And with 33% more failing power!

I get it. “‘Style’ is the word we use when talking about how art looks. What else are we going to call it?” Call it a salami sandwich for all I care. Just don’t call it “style”.

 “Style” is a lazy short-hand. It’s dismissive. It rams decades of hard work and significant sacrifice into a shiny, neat, little package. It’s a convenient way to avoid accepting the fact that you actually have to work—hard—at illustration before it’s deemed publishable by respectable organizations. It’s a distraction—a syphon of energy and time better spent creating, failing, learning, building, evolving, discovering, and developing what you really should be focusing on: finding your voice.

Too often, illustrators worry so much about having a “style” that they totally neglect the narrative, the feeling, the message—otherwise known as the voice. Successful illustrators balance good concepts, good ideas, good stories, with good image-making. And none of this has anything to do with “style”.

POOR, CONFUSED, ART DIRECTORS

Ah, the epic battle between art directors and websites-with-multiple-styles rages on! What are we to do?! Tragically, too many art directors fall flat on their faces, breaking their inexpensive Warby Parker glasses, because an illustrator tripped them up by showing more than one “style”. We never visit the grocery store because they carry cereal and potatoes. How can we decide? Unlike the other billions of people on this planet, art directors are incapable of navigating options. If I need a toothbrush, I don’t go to the pharmacy. I go to the toothbrush store. It only sells toothbrushes and absolutely nothing else. Art directors have gone years without buying socks because they haven’t found a store that only sells socks . . .

Have I made my point yet? 

No other question makes me swear up and down like, Won’t art directors be confused by multiple styles? Why on earth would anyone believe that an art director—who I presume is also human—wouldn’t be able to grasp the concept that an illustrator could also be a polymath? You do realize that the foundation of being an art director starts with the ability to recognize and utilize visual solutions for myriad problems using myriad media. 

Yes, of course I don’t want to see a portfolio with oil portraits, The Legend of Zelda fan art, crayon doodles, pie charts, and napkin drawings all randomly thrown in. I want to see a well organized, well-edited, website that puts you in the best possible light. Personally, I like seeing multiple approaches from an illustrator. It shows versatility.

Having said that, a physical portfolio is a different matter. Normally, a physical portfolio is edited for a more specific purpose (SCBWI showcase, meeting with a client, etc.). In that case, you might want to focus on one approach or another. Having said that, my personal physical portfolio is divided into chapters: drawing, painting, illustration, and design & art direction—and that works for me.

The thumbnail image for this blog post is part of Picasso’s Bull series. It’s a series of lithographs in which Picasso creates a representational image of a bull; and deconstructs it into a purer, more linear, form. My use of the image is meant to pay homage to a man who was the master of multiple “styles”.

The take away should be this: how ever you end up showcasing your work, worrying about confusing an art director should not be an informing factor. So please, if you’re perpetuating this myth: STOP. Put fifty different “styles” on your website (assuming they’re all good). Trust me, we can handle it.

THE GRASS IS GREENER WHERE IT’S WATERED

A lot of illustrators suffer from the “grass is always greener” syndrome. We spend more time appreciating the work of others, and less time appreciating our own work. This is a common issue among most creatives. Why even bother writing a story or painting a picture when I can think of dozens of people who would do it better? My answer to that is simple, and something I only recently (and finally) accepted with my own work: just like our handwriting, no one can create exactly like we can. Our inherent individuality—coupled with years of training and growth—is what buoys our creative lives.

THE ART SCHOOL DILEMMA

What I find happens in art school is that a—well meaning—instructor tries to rewire the student’s natural decision making in an attempt to teach “style”. That’s all fine and good, but it comes with collateral damage. Some students are left questioning their natural choices. They have a tougher time getting into the “zone” because they think more about what they are potentially doing wrong, instead of what they’re doing right. As a consequence, their creative growth is blocked and graduating seniors are left asking art directors what their damn style should be.

I don’t entirely blame art schools. I am still an ardent proponent of the traditional art school—and love teaching at them. Most teachers truly inspire. There are plenty of students who deftly handle absorbing the views of others while retaining their voice. I’m only saying that I’ve seen it often enough that a pattern has emerged. And all patterns, especially harmful ones, need to be addressed.

JUST GROW WITH IT

I was chatting with an artist fairly recently about the subject of “style”—more accurately, why publishers weren’t knocking down his door like they used to. In the 90’s, he enjoyed a good deal of success. He received constant work from one particular client. He was even a “New York Times best-selling illustrator”. He used that distinction as a basis for why he “shouldn’t have to submit to slush piles anymore”.

The problem was his “style”. It was dated. He hadn’t exhibited a lot of visual growth over the past twenty-five years. He locked into one way of image-making, closing off the natural shifts we make as artists. In an attempt to be current, he switched to digital media. The problem remained because no computer program could circumvent it.

Milton Glaser says it so much more eloquently and succinctly than I ever could. In his essay, Ten Things I Have LearnedGlaser discusses the subject of “style”. He had this to say,

The point is that anybody who is in this for the long haul has to decide how to respond to change in the zeitgeist. What is it that people now expect that they formerly didn’t want? and how to respond to that desire in a way that doesn’t change your sense of integrity and purpose.
— Milton Glaser

FORGET STYLE

I don’t particular love my own “style”. I like it a lot. And I have fun with it. More importantly, I find it’s the most natural and fluid way for me to usher the imagery out of my head, down my arm, and out of my hand. My challenge has always been that I like many different artists. I want to watercolor like Sargent, oil paint like NC Wyeth, design like Keats, collage like Beardon, draw like Lawson, ink like Flagg, and think like Potter.

In art school, we were told to “pick a style”. I did: a hackneyed amalgam of Dave McKean, Jordan Isip, and Romare Beardon. This “style” lacked heart. It had nothing to do with who I was an artist, and what I wanted to say with my work. Worst of all, it took me 10 years to free myself from the crippling grip of not knowing what my style was.

What finally snapped me out of it? I stopped caring about how others would perceive my work. I re-taught myself to enjoy the act of creating, without worrying about the final product. To trust myself. And, to not give as much of a sh*t. And wouldn’t you know it, my “style” was there waiting for me.

STYLE AND SUBSTANCE

There will always be work for illustrators who have something to say, and the well-honed ability to say it. The key, as it always will be, is to work—whether or not you’re being paid for it. Your ideas will get better. The way with which you depict your ideas will get better. And just maybe, you’ll have a long and rewarding career. And the word “style” will hopefully be the absolute last thing on your mind.