How can I find a style? The short answer to this question is easy: practice, practice and more practice. I know, that was not the answer you wanted to hear! But to find your own style and voice you have to work hard, try a lot of things and looks what sticks to you. Don’t worry, finding a style you like and feels comfortable with, takes a lot of time and effort.
Believe it or not, all of us have already a style. It may be not so good, or memorable or unique, but it is our style. According to the Oxford dictionary, a style is just a distinctive appearance, determined by the principles according to which something is designed. So let’s see some tips and tricks to get toward finding our own style.
Standing on the shoulder of giants
Nothing comes from nothing. All of us start by copying the things we like. Most illustrators drew as kids, and they copied the things they like: cartoons, skate art, manga comics, rock music posters… As Isaac Newton wrote once “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” (1) The Beatles played music because they wanted to emulate Chuck Berry. And Muddy Waters inspired Chuck Berry. The question is, who do you want to emulate?
If you want to have your own style, the first thing to do is to look for the things you like, the things that inspire you to make your own thing. It doesn’t have to be other illustrators, it can be anything: jazz album covers, old stamps, mid-century packaging, cartoons from the 1930s, your favorite mangas… Look at anything you like and record it. Open a Pinterest account and save all your references. Go back there when in need of inspiration.
“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversation, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” — Jim Jarmusch (2)
Train your taste
The more inspiration and references you get, the more unique can be your style. That is because you have more elements in your luggage you can borrow from. Borrowing from lots of different things, avoid you from being very similar to another illustrator. If your references are good, you only need to practice hard and fill the gap (3) between your not so good work and your taste. If your savor about what you want to do are not good or limited, your work won’t be good. And your (good) taste will define your style.
The more you know about everything, the better. You need not be inspired by others illustrators. Stories, books, music, films, people’s clothes… can be your inspiration. Be open-minded and train your taste!
Borrow from the past
Don‘t look only what actual illustrators are doing, observe what others illustrators and artists did. Get inspired from the past and from other fields too. Doing that, it will be much difficult for your style to be like other styles. The American poet T. S. Eliot wrote, “A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” (4)
See what actual illustrator are doing to know what is occurring in the illustration world and not be outdated. But see further. Explore the past, search for the references of the illustrators you admire. You should seek for the core, the original source of inspiration.
I learned a great trick from Spanish illustrator Puño (5). It comprises making a search for interviews of your favorite illustrators. Then, investigate where they hunt for inspiration. It is actually a normal question, so it is not so difficult to find out. In this way, you are getting inspiration from the core. Your work will be much more different if you search for the original source as if you get inspired by the second level of inspiration.
“Don´t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff.” — Austin Kleon (6)
Borrow in a good way
Borrowing and copying are not bad, actually, it is the origin of every creative act. But we should learn how to borrow in a good way. Puño said: “Only crappy thieves steal everything. We have to be white-gloved thieves and take the best diamond in the museum” (7). That means, if you want to steal from an illustrator or a style from the past, you just don’t make a blatant copy. You look for the most interesting part of the piece, it may be a color palette or the way the artist draw facial expressions or the texture of the painting…. Do the same from different people and mix it in your own work and you have the starting point for your own style.
Cartoonist Gary Panter pointed: “If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you are the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!” (8)
Try new tools
One thing you can do to help you get a style or a different one is to try new tools. If you only draw digital, prove to draw with pencils and markers. If you can only paint with oils and gouaches, struggle to learn how to run Photoshop. Try calligraphy, screen printing, linocut, modeling…
The Italian illustrator Jacopo Rosati caught the illustration world’s attention with his fuzzy felt collages. He tells in an interview: “Until the last two years I was working exclusively on digital artworks. I was pretty sick of working every day on just a computer display, so I started wondering how I could find another way to express myself with handmade artworks. I've chosen fuzzy felt because it's a medium that is rarely used within the world of illustration, and now I'm trying to develop a unique and consistent style with this technique.” (9)
If you are confused about what direction to get, or you are considering changing your current style, try a new tool. It may contribute to something great.
Start making stuff
Austin Kleon said in his book Steal Like an Artist book: “in my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.” (10)
Copying, borrowing and looking for inspirations helps a lot, but at the end of the day, we need to work and make stuff. I know at the beginning it is hard and it can be paralyzing, but we have to make stuff. We need to fill the gap between our taste and the quality of our work, and we can only fill it by making things.
The character of Jack the Dog in the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time told in one episode: “Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something.” (11). Don’t worry at the beginning for the outcome and start making things. After a while, it would be better.
Gary Taxaly speaking in an interview in The Great Discontent about finding your own voice said: “We all have opinions about stuff, but communicating that in a sophisticated manner, with originality and visual flair, isn’t easy. I tell my students that the way to reach that level is to just make lots of pictures with an understanding of being honest, and the more pictures you make with that motivation, I think you can achieve great success.” (12)
The process of getting a style is difficult but simple:
- Search from inspiration
- Practice (make stuff!)
In the second part of this article, I will write about how to analyze an illustration style by breaking it into small chunks and how to add constraints to find a style easy.
- The metaphor of “standing in the shoulder of giants” is not originally from Newton, but he made the quote popular in a letter he wrote to Robert Hooke.
- Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Page 14. A really good book about the topic I recommend to read. Some more quotes in this article are from this book.
- The Gap by Ira Glass. Shortfilm by Daniel Sax with the words of American radio journalist Ira Glass.
- Very interesting article about this quote from T.S. Elliot and how it ended as the apocryphal quote from Picasso “Good artists copy, great artists steals”.
- Puño explains in minute 31:10 at MAD 2011 Conference his concept about how to borrow from the original source of inspiration. The whole conference is really good, I recommend to watch.
- Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Page 36.
- Puño at MAD 2011 Conference. Minute 33:05
- Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Page 36.
- Interview with Jacopo Rosati at Frankie magazine.
- Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Page 27.
- Adventure Time. Season 1. Episode 25, His Hero.
- Gary Taxali on the Great Discontent, Interview by Brandi Katherine Herrera. December 21, 2017.
OTHER SOURCES OF INTEREST
Jessica Hische about Inspiration Vs. Imitation.
Ten Tips from Tom Froese on how to develop your drawing style.
Tips from the well-known illustration agency Folio about developing a style.
Jon Contino Podcast about how to avoid inspiration from becoming plagiarism.
Wijtze Valkema about what is style.