How do you find your artistic style?
November 19, 2007 6:43 PM   Subscribe

Artists: how do you develop a personal style?

I've been studying art for about seven years now; I completed a program in scientific illustration, and am working towards a fine arts degree. I love the work, but I'm running into a big problem: I don't have a single "style" that unifies all my work. And if I ever want to find work as an illustrator, I'm going to have to do so (or so I have been told).

I enjoy working in so many media, though. I like watercolors, pastels, pen & ink, printmaking...I like insects and skulls and flowers and landscapes...I like the bizarre and I like realism...I just can't figure out how to give up a significant portion of my interests and focus on developing a distinctive style. I feel like I will need to address this soon, or my art will remain a hobby, not a money-making activity. So: artists...what to do? Bite the bullet and only use one medium? Force myself to just choose a style? What if I get sick of it?

Here's some of what I've done lately. I appreciate any thoughts and insight into this dilemma; it's been driving me nuts. I've asked my teachers and another online community and haven't gotten very good answers. Any ideas? Or should I just keep studying and improve my skills, and hope it happens?
posted by TochterAusElysium to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I can already see a style starting to happen; can't really put it into words but I see similarities in most of the work in your link.

Keep working-style is something that develops organically. You can't force it. Indeed, while you have the luxury of being a student you might want to force yourself to copy masterworks (I assume this is part of your training already) which will give you a broader artistic vocabulary...other than that, keep working-the style will come.
posted by konolia at 6:51 PM on November 19, 2007

Artists: how do you develop a personal style?

Do what you want to do, not what you think others want you to do.
posted by jamaro at 6:55 PM on November 19, 2007

Also, I don't think your personal style is necessarily the same thing as your professional style. You can choose to take a certain approach in your professional work, to make yourself more marketable, without giving up doing other things you like.
posted by winston at 6:58 PM on November 19, 2007

That makes sense though. Does it need to be more limited than skulls, insects, landscapes that are bizarre and/or realistic? Sounds like a style to me...
posted by unknowncommand at 7:07 PM on November 19, 2007

Best answer: Honestly? Do a bugger lot of art, and do more, and more. If you are able to create the effect you want consistently you can have multiple styles, which will make you more desirable on a commercial level. You are going to fight to find a classification, a way to market yourself and it may well be an inaccurate and frustrating process. Looking at your link I think you do have a style that is coming through. Get out of school with your degree and don't be limited by it.
Making good money from artwork is pretty hard even if you do have a style, a degree, passion and all the rest.
But, don't let that discourage you, just keep in mind anything short of tedious grunt work is not going to pay well, but in a real way that is secondary to making art.

I am not going to give names as it isn't my place to do so, however here is a little story that, to me, is what art is about.

I manage a small arts promotion and sales company in Northern MN. One of my clients put her artwork in a show in Bemidji. Just a small part of a group show, she had her own little side gallery, about 8 pieces as it was such a small thing she didn't even go to the opening as it was a few hours away.
Two days ago she got an email from a fellow who had stopped in to the gallery to pay the rent on his studio space. He was already familiar with the artwork of everyone else there and wasn't too interested, just happening to glance in the small gallery where my artist's stuff was.
The email detailed just how much he was moved by her artwork, and that he was an art teacher at Red Lake who has been on medical leave since this event. PTSD, depression, alcoholism... And that looking at this artwork made him want to go back to teach again.

We didn't make a single sale at that show, and soon it will come down and be shipped across MN to sit in a studio until it needs to be dusted off and incorporated somewhere else.

This fellow who wrote, may or may not go back to teach. If he does it will be in a small part because of what he saw that day. If he doesn't at least for a small time he had the passion again. My artist is going to try and go to Red Lake High School sometime in the next year as part of the Arts Ambassador program run in MN, and if not with that then independently to run a workshop, in-service with those kids.

Who knows where it will lead, if anything substantial will come out of it. But, connections are made, some good is transferred.

Good luck in your endeavors.
posted by edgeways at 7:13 PM on November 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A style is what naturally evolves from doing the work. I wouldn't worry about it. You do not need to develop a style that unifies all your work. The unifying factor is you. What you might want to do is to break down your different things, like your botanicals in one pile, your insects, your bones, your illustrations from photographs, etc. and develop marketing packets for each type individually. If you are applying for illustration jobs you give a portfolio that shows your work that would be illustrative (not the bones, not the portrait of grandpa in the chair with a dog). They stylized insect heads, the bees, etc.

I have had a few of my pieces reproduced on postcards and I use those as mailers. You could have 4 different works in a particular genre (insects, for instance) and do a marketing piece for that. I use Modern Postcard and you can submit digitally. Anyway, don't worry about a style. Just do your work and when you look back on it over the course of a few years you will see the unifying thread in the work--it will just be there because it all came through your hand.
posted by 45moore45 at 7:16 PM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with winston and, on preview, edgeways and 45moore45. I strongly disagree with unknowncommand--his comment isn't about style so much as subject matter.

Having said that, if you check out, you should quickly run into a few illustrators who have multiple styles that they tailor to an individual assignment.

The point is that you have to be really good at at least one very consistent style, not that you can only have one style. But if you have more than one style, it needs to be something you can flip on-off: now I'm doing that indie-shaky-line thing, now I'm doing flat-colour lineless "I'm using Adobe Illustrator" illustration.

You don't have that ability to toggle, yet. Instead, you jiggle around a few different styles, and not consistently. Not a bad thing, but certainly not ideal for illustration. You could gather annoyed customers rather quickly like that.

As to how you can develop one style (because, honestly, you start with one, and if you can, you add others): draw, a shitload. Use new media as often as possible. Experiment. Choose different subjects. Do as many lifedrawings of human models as possible, and since you tend towards precision, do a lot of 1-minute drawings of models. Do things that deliberately screw with your 'current' style, and see if that changes things.

For example. Your background in scientific illustration explains why you tend to be really precise. Here's one exercise that beat me out of that:

Set up an easel. Put some tape on the floor, about the length of your arm + the length of your paintbrush (minimum 5-6 inches), minus an inch or two. The paintbrush should thick. Dip it in some black paint, and try to paint with it, from feet away, only holding onto the absolute tip of the brush. Self-portraits are a good subject, as you know your face well enough that even if the mirror slips and changes angle or something, you can still fill in the gaps.

Developing style is a process of constantly drawing and, in many cases, always trying something new.

If you want to try to force it, then look at your pieces for the last month, choose your favourites, and take the stylistic techniques from those favourites and try to consciously incorporate those techniques for the next month. This will be a pain in the buttooshk. It's the same thing as taking an illustrator you like (see and trying to emulate them, though, so it might very well work.

Oh, yeah. And in case I didn't say this enough: draw a lot. Seriously. 90% of your 'style' just comes from you being you. So be you, and draw.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:22 PM on November 19, 2007

Best answer: You already have a very personal, distinct style. I didn't even need to click on the photos to enlarge them to see your line, composition, balance, unique expression, etc.

The medium doesn't define the style. Many great artists have been both painters and sculptors, for example. The medium is the means to express your style, but it doesn't make it.

Keep at it, stay open, and the world will present to you a path that might narrow your style, and you can go with it. or it might present a different path, and you can go with that.

Do not cut off your options and limit yourself.
posted by Vaike at 7:22 PM on November 19, 2007

Style takes care of itself.
posted by rhizome at 7:28 PM on November 19, 2007

Best answer: I think 45moore45's observation about selecting works for your portfolio based upon the audience/purpose is spot-on.

Another thing to consider is writing an artist statement. The process of outlining what your work is, how you make it, why you make it, and what you get out of it can really clarify matters for you. When distributed with a portfolio or exhibit, it can answer (and create!) questions for the audience, as well.

As far as "style" goes, as mentioned above, it evolves with making more and more work. The quality of line, placement on the page, and all those other formal elements make themselves apparent. The content (what it's about) is another telling aspect of style. Editing your selections will help make your work appear more unified.
posted by bonobo at 7:39 PM on November 19, 2007

Stand on the shoulders of those who inspire you. Then jump.
posted by artdrectr at 7:50 PM on November 19, 2007

I agree with Winston and Vaike.

A commercial illustrator once told me that it paid not to have a style when you're being comissioned by people, but you can't help what you tend towards. As such he aimed at actively avoiding any discernible style, but it was easy to pick out his paintings in a lineup.

Perhaps don't concern yourself with developing a style. You'll become one of those self-obsessed sheep if you're not careful.

If you're worrying about style you're limiting yourself in what you can do. Saying you have a particular way of doing things is putting a framework up for you to work inside, within. I'd rather not be limited to what I usually do, instead of what I can do.
posted by Surfyournut at 7:59 PM on November 19, 2007

Best answer: Find the piece that best reflects your strongest work in the area you want to focus in. Use that as a reference for any piece you create towards that area. For example, If you chose this piece as a starting point. Continue work in the same style, using the same media and materials. Feel free to vary the subject matter, how would a series of plant illustrations look using the same pallete and media? Pay attention to things like line weight, composition, and color choice. Try and keep these in the same ballpark. At the same time, trust your instincts, stick to your preferences. Work to your strengths. I'm good at drawing people, but I'm terrible at portraits. So I steer clear of anything that even resembles a real person. If you find yourself naturally gravitating towards something different, go with it. Just replace whatever the original reference image(s) with whatever new thing you think is working better. When you put together a portfolio, check the pieces against the original reference to see how well matched they are. I'm very picky about the art I keep above my desk. The pieces that I can see while I'm actually working, are usually reference for what it is I'm working on. If I look up, and what I'm working on is measurably different, I put it aside. If you're focusing on pencils, put the markers in a drawer.

Is this something you HAVE to do? Not at all. All it does is make it easier to sell yourself, and it depends a lot on what area you're going into, and what you're trying to sell. Also it just makes the work easier once you get it. Practice a certain style enough, and it's a lot less work when a client says, "I want one like the dragonfly, only make it a bicycle"

What it mostly comes down to is your ability to edit your own work, and judge it objectively. When it comes to working professionally, this skill is as important as the ability to create the work. After a while, it becomes second nature.

Does this mean you should stop doing any other types of work? of course not. The main purpose of developing a "style" is so that the client can look at your portfolio and know if you can deliver what they're looking for. Pretty much every working pro I know has some other thing they're working on that they consider their "real work".

Also, there's no law against having multiple portfolios. It never hurts once you've sold someone on (x), letting them know that you can also do (y). In my career as an illustrator and designer, my two biggest selling points have been versatility and professionalism. I have had plenty of clients who come to me first with any request. I'll do an illustration job, and a month later they'll call me asking if I do photography. For no other reason than they like working with me.

and a lot of what 45moore45 said. no matter what you do, YOU'RE the one who did it. Just work to your strengths, and the rest kind of takes care of itself.
posted by billyfleetwood at 8:40 PM on November 19, 2007

That's a great answer from billyfleetwood. I used to hire illustrators for projects, and the a lot of times simple consistency of style and image strength won out over taking the gamble on an illustrator whose work didn't have a very particular look and feel, but whose artwork considered on its merits as individual pieces might be brilliant.

Art directors hire illustrators based on what they believe the a particular design calls for in terms of style. Surprises and grab bags are often delightful in the fine art world, but not for an Art director working on deadline in the corporate world.

If I were you I'd try to choose a style that not only comes easiest to you, but one that you also find interesting and aesthetically pleasing, rather than just chasing whatever genre is getting the most print right now. In the end, if you're successful, you'll be getting a lot of calls to recreate the wheel you've chosen for yourself. Make sure it's one you'll be happy spinning something wonderful out of.
posted by stagewhisper at 9:03 PM on November 19, 2007

Best answer: Sounds like you've got a lot of good advice already, but I'll tell you what a professor told me when I fretted that I hadn't really found a unique writing style I liked: Everyone is copying someone. Even the ones who think they're being original — they're copying other people without even knowing it. So just start from there and copy someone. Take a style you like and copy it for awhile. It'll be impossible for you to mimic it perfectly, and so you'll naturally end up introducing your own little idiosyncracies to make it your own, without even trying. When you see other styles you like, try to incorporate them, too. Eventually, it will become Your Style (in my experience, very quickly), and none will be the wiser.

It worked very well for me with my writing. I should think it would apply to your media as well.

Oh, I see that you're in Seattle... I have a question for you, but I'll MefiMail it.
posted by adiabat at 10:42 PM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Style is not a fixed thing. The only way to develop something is through practice-- practice through seeing through others eyes and through your own. But you will begin to notice that the more you practice, whether drawing or printing or whatever, you will begin to fall into certain patterns.

Sometimes it's subject matter. Sometimes it's a particular motif. Sometimes it's the medium. When I was starting out in college, I was all over the place-- I used watercolor (badly), I used pencil, pen, bad photoshop, etc. I was apeing anime art poorly at that time. Through practice and experience I began to see I liked using a brush to ink things, and I loved printmaking. I didn't think that I would enjoy working digitally at all, it wasn't part of my style. Then I started working freelance and I realized professionally I needed it. It's been invaluable ever since, but I took my knowledge of printmaking and applied it to my digital coloring, and it's grown into my style.

What I mean is that you will never be the inventor of a particular style-- we're influenced by a lot. Through practice and immersion in the things that fascinate you, you'll find yourself more comfortable in your skin, in your voice. Still your style never stays the same-- it's a fluid creature and it evolves. I can look at drawings I did two years ago, one year ago, even six months ago and note the changes! Even so it's not drastic, like jumping all over the place-- it's the attention to detail in certain things, removing certain elements-- it's a natural progression, but I can still see the roots. .

I agree with stagewhisper-- art directors want to see consistency-- they don't want to see you do watercolors on your site and then bang! something totally different for a project. But that doesn't mean you have to limit yourself to one medium-- there are a ton of illustrators who set up sections on their website to different mediums, or have multiple mediums on their folios. If there is something unifying them it is okay-- however, you may get an AD saying 'we want something like your _____ on your folio.'

I wouldn't worry so much about developing a style-- the people who actively concerned themselves in college with that would wind up apeing their professors. And it college it was okay because they were just learning but really you need to break your inhibitions and practice, carry a sketchbook around and draw a ton, experiment, and things WILL fall into place, I promise. Right now your style is like a little infant giraffe-- it is unsure, it is maybe a bit gangly, it is doing all sorts of things but it needs to be nutured. Once you give it what it needs it'll rise upon its own feet, maybe a little unsteady at first, but it'll get better.

Whew that was long, sorry. Good luck!
posted by actionpact at 7:55 AM on November 20, 2007

Looking through your portfolio, I noticed that practically everything had strong, sharply-defined, flowing curved lines.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:37 AM on November 20, 2007

this is some of the best and sound advice on this topic i have ever heard. tochter, it's not just students who face this question - some of us work for years out of college, in professional agency life, handling completely varied illustration assignments, and then quit, to boldly face freelancing and breaking into commercial illustration for a livelyhood. in my case it's children's books, and after months and months of dedicating my best work to it, i still don't think i've found my style. it's emerging but i still can't show a rep what they want yet - they want 15-30 pieces that (gasp!) look the SAME. they want to say confidently, to a client of theirs (a publisher, an art director) THIS is who you are, and you have consistent and resolved style that can deliver a 16pp picture book, an ad campaign, a complete branding system, from concept to completion. this is what makes you MEMORABLE and MARKETABLE professionally.

it's they key, on the business side. go spend some time at magnetreps or any other reputable art rep site and you'll see what i mean. EVERY artist there has a singular look, and a body of work to back it up. then go back and look at where you are. pull out as many pieces as you have that all LOOK the same. if you have 2, build off of those ideas, if you just have 1, that you really truly feel represents you and what your "voice" is, as an illustrator, then start there. and then draw, draw, draw, draw to find and flesh out that style. ape YOURSELF which is much harder than it sounds. i believe it IS an organic process. it can't just come from your brain and hands. your heart and what inspires and drives you as a person is what inspires and drives you artistically, and it will play a huge role in your style.

i agree with many of the comments here...your style IS there, already. look at how you tackle insects, all that detail and precision and yet a softer flow to your lines, that isn't screaming just medical/technical illustration. it feels like the start of a highly sophisticated baby giraffe, like actionpact said. if you want to "ape" around a bit, look at edward gorey (his pen work reminds me of you), lisbeth zwerger (your beautiful flowy lines, your looser side) any artist that delivers that kind of precision is worth your review. it's the RESOLUTION of your skills, that formula you find that works for YOU, that speaks to YOU, and i think, after my own journey yet to be taken, COMES from you. best best of luck, tochter - you WILL find it and then one day, a little baby giraffe will be asking YOU how you found your style.

happy holidays! :)
posted by mommyfrog at 6:22 AM on December 18, 2007

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