How to analyze a style

When I was confused about how to develop my own illustration style, I started thinking: what are the most important parts that define a style? What are the main characteristics of a certain illustration style? One day I found on the internet an article about a learning method called deliberate practice, a concept from Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson. One of their technics to learn faster is methodically broke something into small chunks and figuring out how to master each section.

So I used the same tactic with illustration. Instead of analyzing an illustration as a whole, I broke the illustration in smaller chunks and figured out each part of it. Knowing that I could work efficiently in finding a style. After some study, I divided an illustration style in six different pieces:

  1. Level of abstraction.
  2. Line and shape
  3. Composition and movement
  4. Colour
  5. Texture
  6. Voice

Level of abstraction
Any image is a visual representation of something. You can decide which level of abstraction you will use in this representation. In his book Design Elements, the designer and educator Timothy Samara shows a scale of how this level of abstraction works (1). The scale goes from very realistic (literal representation) to abstract, passing through concrete and iconic representation.

Timothy Samara - Design Elements:  A Graphic Style Manual

Following Samara´s scale, I made a small example with some different illustration styles, so you can see clearly how the scale works.

From left to right: Barosz Kosowski, Lola Beltrán, Sonia Pulido, Raúl Soria, Olimpia Zagnoli, Molly Fairhurst & Studio Bingo

I recommend reading chapter two from Scott McCloud Understandings Comics (2) to learn more about this topic.


Line & Shape
After we know in which part of the abstraction scale are we going to work, we can take a look at the use of line and shapes in our work. Observe how other illustrators use line and shape… do they use outlines? How thick and regular is the line? Are their shapes organic or geometric? are their shapes proportional?…

Italian illustrator Jonathan Calugi is an obsess of the line. Most of his work is dedicated to the use of line as a way of communication.

Jonathan Calugi

Illustrator John DeVolle has a heavy use of geometrical shapes while his line approach helps him to create the details in his illustrations.

John DeVolle

Olimpia Zagnoli doesn´t use lines at all. Her bold style is based in a clever use of colour, good composition and lots of clean and almost geometrical forms.

Olimpia Zagnoli


Composition & Movement
Once we have defined how we are gonna make use of lines and shapes, it is time to think about composition and movement in our style.
Composition is the arrangement of elements and the relations between them in an illustration. With movement, I mean how static or active are your illustrations.

While a good composition is in most cases desirable, movement is in my opinion just a choice. Your style can be quiet and with static elements, if you want.

French artist Malika Favre hat a great sense for composition and movement. While her images are quite relaxed because of her use of composition, most of her illustrations suggest a feeling of movement.

Malika Fravre

Dutch illustrator Hedof employs a unique use of composition. The elements in his illustrations mix and overlap with each other, defining one big characteristic of Hedof style.

Hedof

Another illustrator with great use of composition and movement is Italian illustrator Sarah Mazzetti. Their characters and elements are always moving, making her style very vivid.

Sarah Mazzetti


Colour
The colour palette is very important in an illustration. The right colour combination can make an illustration looks right, while the wrong one can ruin it. Having and owning your own colour palette can help in having a style.

Look at the work of Spanish illustrator Cristina Daura. She always uses almost the same colour palette, making it an inherent part of her style. She added a constraint and made it part of her style.

Cristina Daura

Polish illustrator Dawid Ryski, known as Talkseek, like to use soft colours, with some softer primary colours and heavy use of beige.

Talkseek

On the other side of the spectrum, Japanese illustrator Noritake almost doesn’t use colour at all. He likes to work in black and white and sometimes he just add one colour for the background.

Noritake


Texture
Textures help us to add tone and depth in an illustration. They can give a handmade feel if your work is very vector-based. There are infinite ways and mediums to add texture, like digital brushes, real brushes, pencils, watercolours, using paper cutouts, scanning things and apply them as textures, spray painting, the kind of paper you use… In this area, you can get very creative and experimental.

Spanish illustrator Malota has a wonderful use of texture. She uses mainly photoshop brushes, but she likes to experiment with gouaches and even painting in pottery, creating very nice textures.

Malota

Berlin-based illustrator duo Zebu likes to use texture to add shadows and a little bit of depth in their work. Their use of texture is quite minimalistic, but add something extra to their very geometrical style.

Zebu
Gary Taxali

Canadian illustrator Gary Taxali works mainly screen printing on old papers, vintage book covers and packaging, giving his 30´s cartoon style an extra layer and making it quite unique.


Voice
The voice isn’t, in reality, a physical characteristic of a style, but I included in the list because it is probably the most important aspect of an illustration. The voice is the core of an illustration, it is what we say and which ideas we communicate. If we subtract all the components listed above, we just get the bare bones of an illustration, and that is the voice. What we say is so important (or probably more) than how we draw it.

We can take a look in the work of illustrators, what are the things they are drawing, which ideas and concepts they communicate? Think about which ideas do you want to communicate with your illustrations, what you have to say, what do you want to share?


Two extra aspects to take into consideration

Although I don’t count them as characteristics of illustration, there are two factors that we should take into account while searching for a style. These are the medium where we are working and the tools that we are using.

The medium
Illustration is not fine art, it is made for a certain medium. As Wikipedia explains, “An illustration is a decoration, interpretation or visual explanation of a text, concept or process, designed for integration in published media, such as posters, flyers, magazines, books, teaching materials, animations, video games and films.”

The medium is not a characteristic of an illustration, but it is something we shall take into consideration. Some styles are not suitable for certain media, and at the same time, the medium can influence our illustration style. Printing limitations influence, for example, the way we use colours.

The Tools
The tools and painting technique that we employ to make our illustrations directly define our style, or at least part of it. It can define for sure the line, the shapes, the colour and the texture.

Jill Senft

A big part of the whimsical style of German illustrator Jill Senft is defined by her use of acrylics. They give a heavy texture to her illustrations, making her style very unique.

The Printed Peanut

Louise Lockhart aka The Printed Peanut, works with paper cutouts, adding a roughed look to her style.


How to use constraints to find your style

Lots of people think that constraints are bad and limiting, but actually, limitations mean freedom. If you have endless ways to do something, you will spend more time thinking about how to do it than actually making. As Austin Kleon says “Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities. In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it´s the things we choose to leave out”. (3)

"Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities"

AUSTIN KLEON


Now you know which aspects you can take into consideration while making an illustration, and then, decide in which parts are you going concentrate and which parts are you going to leave out. The best way is to do it, is trying things out, experimenting and actually making things. Don’t wait until you know exactly which style do you want to achieve, just start now. There is just one way to find your very own style, and that is just making.


FOOTNOTES

  1. Design Elements: A Graphic Design Manual by Timothy Samara.
  2. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.
  3. Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.